WASHINGTON — For four years, a Russian accused of being a covert agent pursued a brazen effort to infiltrate conservative circles and influence powerful Republicans while she secretly was in contact with Russian intelligence operatives, a senior Russian official and a billionaire oligarch close to the Kremlin whom she called her “funder,” federal prosecutors said on Wednesday.
The woman, Maria Butina, carried out her campaign through a series of deceptions that began in 2014, if not earlier, prosecutors said. She lied to obtain a student visa to pursue graduate work at American University in 2016. Apparently hoping for a work visa that would grant her a longer stay, she offered one American sex in exchange for a job. She moved in with a Republican political operative nearly twice her age, describing him as her boyfriend. But she privately expressed “disdain” for him and had him do her homework, prosecutors said.
In a dramatic two-hour hearing in Federal District Court here, prosecutors said that Ms. Butina, who is charged with conspiracy and illegally acting as an agent of the Russian government, was the point person in a calculated, long-term campaign intended to steer high-level politicians toward Moscow’s objectives. Though prosecutors did not name any party or politician, Ms. Butina’s efforts were clearly aimed at Republican leaders, especially those with White House aspirations in 2016, including Donald J. Trump.
She “should be considered on a par with other covert Russian agents,” prosecutors said in a memo.
Over all, they described what appears to be another arm of the Russian government’s attempts to influence or gain information about the American political process. While Russian military intelligence officers were hacking into the computers and email accounts of the Hillary Clinton campaign and Democratic Party organizations, Ms. Butina was building connections on the Republican side under the direction of an official believed to be Alexander Torshin, the deputy head of the Russian central bank, who has established ties to Russian security services, according to the court filings.
Secretly, she and others laid the groundwork for a $125,000 operation to connect with Republican leaders through a network of contacts with the National Rifle Association and conservative religious groups, including the organizers of the National Prayer Breakfast, prosecutors said. “The defendant’s covert influence campaign involved substantial planning, international coordination and preparation,” they said.