Trump associate socialized with alleged Russian agent Maria Butina in final weeks of 2016 campaign – The Washington Post

Trump associate socialized with alleged Russian agent Maria Butina in final weeks of 2016 campaign – The Washington Post

Maria Butina, the Russian gun-rights activist who was charged last month with working as an unregistered agent of the Kremlin, socialized in the weeks before the 2016 election with a former Trump campaign aide who anticipated joining the presidential transition team, emails show, putting her in closer contact with President Trump’s orbit than was previously known.

Butina sought out interactions with J.D. Gordon, who served for six months as the Trump campaign’s director of national security before leaving in August 2016 and being offered a role in the nascent Trump transition effort, according to documents and testimony provided to the Senate Intelligence Committee and described to The Washington Post.

The two exchanged several emails in September and October 2016, culminating in an invitation from Gordon to attend a concert by the rock band Styx in Washington. Gordon also invited Butina to attend his birthday party in late October of that year.

Prosecutors have said Butina, 29, who became a graduate student at American University in 2016, attempted to infiltrate the U.S. political system at the direction of a senior Russian official. Her activities came at the same time that, according to U.S. intelligence officials, Moscow was seeking to interfere in the presidential election to help Trump.

[She was like a novelty: How alleged Maria Butina gained access to elite conservative circles]

During the campaign, Butina asked Trump at a public event in 2015 about his views on Russia and briefly met Donald Trump Jr. at a National Rifle Association meeting in May 2016.

U.S. investigators probing alleged coordination between the Trump campaign and Russia have been examining dozens of contacts between Russians and Trump associates, including Trump Jr., former campaign chairman Paul Manafort and presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner, as well as foreign policy advisers Carter Page and George Papadopoulos.

Gordon, 50, a former naval officer who served as a Pentagon spokesman under President George W. Bush before working on several Republican political campaigns, said his contacts with Butina were innocuous.

“From everything I’ve read since her arrest last month, it seems the Maria Butina saga is basically a sensationalized click bait story meant to smear a steady stream of Republicans and NRA members she reportedly encountered over the past few years,” he said in a statement to The Post, noting that she networked extensively. Gordon provided the same statement and some details of his interactions to the Washington Times, which published his account Friday afternoon after The Post contacted Gordon for comment.

“I wonder which prominent Republican political figures she hasn’t come across?” Gordon asked.

Robert Driscoll, an attorney for Butina, said the email exchanges show that Butina was a student eager to network with Americans who shared her interests and no more. Gordon and Driscoll both said the interactions were not romantic and the two had no additional contact after the birthday party in October 2016.

“A military guy who had been involved would have been a prime target, if that’s what she was about,” Driscoll said. “But the evidence is clear that there wasn’t any significant contact.”

Jay Sekulow, an attorney for Trump, declined to comment, as did a spokeswoman for the Senate Intelligence Committee.

Prosecutors say an American identified in court documents as “person 1” helped introduce Butina to people who had “influence in American politics.” The Post has identified that person as Paul Erickson, a GOP operative from South Dakota with whom Butina was in a romantic relationship.

The emails described to The Post show that Butina met Gordon at a party at the Swiss ambassador’s residence on Sept. 29, 2016. Gordon told The Post that he had been invited to the party by Faith Whittlesey, the prominent Republican and former U.S. ambassador to Switzerland who died earlier this year.

Later that night, Erickson wrote an email to Gordon and Butina, offering to “add an electronic bridge” to the pair’s meeting earlier that evening.

Erickson wrote to Butina that Gordon was “playing a crucial role in the Trump transition effort and would be an excellent addition to any of the U.S./Russia friendship dinners to occasionally hold.”

He continued that Gordon’s view on international security was listened to by all the “right” people in the “immediate future of American politics.”

Erickson did not respond to a request for comment.

Erickson explained to Gordon in the email that Butina was living in Washington while she completed a master’s degree at American University. Erickson described Butina as a “special friend” of the NRA and said she was the special assistant to the deputy governor of the Bank of Russia, according to the correspondence described to The Post.

[Maria Butina’s proud defense of her homeland drew notice at American University]

Prosecutors have said the central banker, Alexander Torshin, helped direct Butina’s activities in the United States, including an effort to make contacts in the leadership of the NRA. NRA officials have not responded to requests for comment.

The emails show Gordon quickly responded to Erickson, sending Butina and Erickson a clip of a recent appearance he had made on RT, the Russian state-run English language television network. In the RT interview, Gordon said Trump took a “real common-sense approach to Russia.”

“We want to reduce hostility with Russia because, look, we have common interests,” he said.

Butina responded with praise, writing in an email to Gordon that he “looked very good” and had appeared smart and comfortable in the television appearance. She invited Gordon to attend a group dinner at the Army and Navy Club, hosted by George O’Neill Jr., the conservative writer and heir to the Rockefeller fortune, to discuss the relationship between the United States and Russia. Prosecutors cited the dinners organized by O’Neill, described in court documents as “person 2,” as part of Butina’s efforts to influence thought leaders.

O’Neill did not respond to requests for comment.

Gordon responded that he could not attend the dinner, but he asked Butina over emails to get together for drinks and the concert. In one email described to The Post, Gordon included a link to a September 2016 Politico story reporting that he was a part of Trump’s growing transition effort. Gordon included a smattering of Russian phrases in his emails, beginning several notes “Privyet Maria,” with a Russian word for “hello.” In one email, he wrote “Kak di la?” The phrase is Russian for “How are you?”

In an emailed statement to The Post, Gordon said that Butina presented herself to “likely thousands of people” as a graduate student and founder of a Russian gun-rights group.

“It appears she sought out countless influential Americans in her steadfast efforts to strengthen relations with Russia. Recognizing that every single president since the Cold War tried to improve relations with Russia, including Pres. Obama, her Russian-American friendship efforts seemed in sync with a decades-old US foreign policy goal,” he said.

The contact was not Erickson’s first attempt to connect Butina and Torshin to the Trump campaign. In May 2016, he emailed Trump adviser Rick Dearborn and urged Dearborn to set up a meeting between Trump and Torshin at an upcoming NRA convention. Erickson described Torshin in the email as “[Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s emissary” for building warmer ties with the United States.

The campaign declined Erickson’s invitation but Torshin and Butina ultimately encountered the candidate’s son at a private dinner at the NRA convention, and they chatted briefly, Trump Jr. has said.

Gordon, who said he was never paid for his work on the Trump campaign and never performed any duties on the transition team, was assigned in March 2016 to serve as the point person for a newly named advisory group on foreign policy and national security. That committee also included Page, who has drawn interest from investigators for delivering a foreign policy speech in Moscow in July 2016, and Papadopoulos, who pleaded guilty last year to lying to the FBI about his Russia contacts and has been cooperating with special counsel Robert S. Mueller III.

Gordon attended a March 2016 meeting of the group presided over by Trump while he was a presidential candidate, where Papadopoulos introduced himself by announcing he could help arrange a meeting between Trump and Putin.

Page told the House Intelligence Committee in November 2017 that he had informed Gordon before visiting Moscow in July 2016, where he delivered a speech at a Russian university and exchanged brief greetings with Deputy Prime Minister Arkady Dvorkovich.

While in Moscow, Page wrote Gordon and another Trump aide that he had received “incredible insights and outreach” from a “few Russian legislators and senior members of the Presidential administration here.” Page testified that he exchanged only brief greetings with one Russian official, Dvorkovich, who had attended his speech.

Gordon has described Page and Papadopoulos as “peripheral members of a relatively peripheral advisory committee.”

Gordon has also said he briefly met Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak at the Republican National Convention, in an exchange he has said was innocuous. And he was the Trump campaign’s point person for a Republican platform committee discussion in which he argued against language that would have endorsed having the United States send lethal weapons to Ukraine. The proposed provision, which was not adopted, was perceived as hostile to Russia.

Gordon has said he pushed the platform committee to reject the language, proposed by a Republican delegate, because he had heard Trump talk about his desire to forge better relations with Russia and considered the language to be damaging for that goal.

Because of those contacts, Gordon has said he was asked to testify before all three congressional committees that have investigated Russian interference in the election, as well as investigators working for Mueller.

Gordon said he disclosed his Butina contact in congressional testimony but was not asked about her by Mueller’s team. He said FBI agents in Washington who have been investigating Butina have not asked to speak with him.

Carol D. Leonnig, Alice Crites and Shane Harris contributed to this report.

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