It was March of 2015 when Maria Butina emailed David Keene to say the time was right for Russia to build constructive relationships with the Republican Party. This was three months before Donald Trump entered the race for President, a year before he won a primary and became a political contender. Antonin Scalia had eleven months to live, and Bernie Sanders had been in the race almost a month. Gallup and CNN both put the Democrats and Hillary Clinton slightly ahead in early election polls–but Butina informed Keene that the Republicans would likely control the U.S. government after the 2016 Election.
Butina is the Russian spy indicted on Monday by Robert Mueller. Her mentor and handler, Aleksandr Torshin, is a Russian politician with close personal ties to Vladimir Putin. Keene is an American, a highly influential Republican political operative who worked on the campaigns of Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bob Dole, and Mitt Romney. When Butina and Keene first met, in 2013, he was President of the NRA, and that is how the two agreed to build Russian influence: The NRA plays a central place and influence in the Republican Party, Butina wrote in March of 2015.
By October of 2016, Keene bragged to a friend that he had established a “VERY private line of communication between the Kremlin and key Republican leaders through, of all conduits, the NRA.”
These are among the most remarkable revelations in the affidavit unsealed on Monday, when Butina was arrested. The affidavit itself anonymizes the names of Keene, the Republican Party, and the NRA, but it’s not hard for anyone with Google — or even a basic knowledge of American politics — to connect the dots. While the prevailing narrative among left-leaning Americans today is “Trump is in bed with Russia,” the truth is much more troubling: Russian influence on the Republican Party far predates Trump.
The secret hand of Vladimir Putin
Vladimir Putin did not rise to power through open conquest. In his youth, he was known for keeping a low profile, staying in the background and navigating relationships. His first presidency was a surprise to the world, as Boris Yeltsin resigned without warning and made Putin — appointed by Yeltsin as Prime Minister only four months prior, after one year heading the FSB — President. Then he pardoned Yeltsin, grating the former President immunity from any investigation.
In the two decades since, Putin has moved from elected official to autocrat, and shifted Russia from democracy to dictatorship, not through blunt force but through subterfuge and influence. He built close relationships with Russia’s powerful oligarchs, eliminated critics through assassination and imprisonment, secured electoral victories through fraud, and built what’s been described as a “death cult” of Russian identity, playing on nationalism and white supremacy.
When Russia invaded Crimea in 2014, they did not send armies marching across the border in uniform. Instead, Russian soldiers disguised themselves as Ukrainian separatists, and even as the world saw through the ruse, Putin insisted the conflict in Crimea was a civil war, not an invasion. A few months later, Russian hackers would have handed the Ukrainian presidency to far-right candidate Dmytro Yarosh (who actually received 1% of the vote) if election observers had not noticed the hack in time.
In short, Putin might be a sort of 21st century Littlefinger, seeking power through back-channels and recognizing the opportunities presented by corporatism, wealth consolidation, technology, and worldwide white nationalism. In the US, these ingredients opened an opportunity for partnership with the Republican Party, which even Butina recognized had long been antagonistic toward Russia.
The American Insurgency
The idea of an conservative alliance between Russia and the United States predates Trump and Butina. Pat Buchanan, whose hard-right nationalism has barely marginalized him within his party, has long advocated a strong partnership between the two nations, and has long admired Putin. In 2008, with Russian forces occupying the independent nation of Georgia, Buchanan suggested the US join the conflict on Russia’s side. In 2014, after Russia invaded Ukraine, Buchanan said that “God is on Russia’s side,” referring to Putin’s Russia as the “third Rome,” defending Christian values against the “Gomorrah” of Western culture.
This theory comes not only from Buchanan, but often from far-right white nationalists, who view “European culture” as something that must be protected against “invasion” from the outside. Such views, always a factor in Republican rhetoric, came to the fore following the election of Barack Obama.
The reaction of many white conservatives following the election of America’s first Black President was less that of a minority party, and more like that of an insurgency against a hostile occupation. Sales of firearms skyrocketed, as NRA President Wayne LaPierre stood at podium after podium claiming Obama, who took no action to limit gun sales, was a secret tyrant. Conspiracy theories abounded, to the point where Texas Governor Greg Abbott mobilized the state’s national guard against a simple military training exercise. Far-right Americans were further mobilized by expanded rights for LGBTQ Americans, and by grassroots movements like Black Lives Matter.
One could argue the rage and fear from America’s far-right walked us right into Putin’s hands. A Reuters poll in March of 2015, around the same time Maria Butina emailed David Keene about a Russian-Republican alliance, showed that a third of Republicans viewed Barack Obama as a greater threat to the United States than Vladimir Putin.
And so Putin set about courting Republicans. In March of 2015, in an email titled “Your Path Forward,” Keene provided her with a list of officials, media personalities, and politicians with whom she should meet. This list was not included in the affidavit, so the names on it are unknown. In February of 2016, Butina and Torshin attended the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington DC, an important event attended by many elected officials, including — usually — the U.S. President, and organized by The Fellowship, AKA “The Family,” a secretive Christian organization active in international politics.
In March of that year, Butina exchanged emails with Keene and another American, named in the affidavit as “Person 2” about setting up dinners in Washington later that year with high-level officials. Though also anonymized, Person 2 is believed to be Paul Erickson, a long-time Republican activist who worked on the campaigns of Pat Buchanan and Mitt Romney, and who claimed after Donald Trump’s election to be on his transition team. In an email between Butina and this person in March of 2016, Butina refers to Torshin’s “desire in our Russian-American project,” and that “all we needed is <<yes>> from Putin’s side.”
GOP: Grand Old Party? Or Generous Oligarch Putin?
In August of 2016, Butina entered the U.S. on a student visa, apparently to pursue the strategy developed in cooperation with Keene, Torshin, and other US and Russian officials. We do not know all the details of Russian entanglements with the Republican party; we don’t know the list of people Keene provided for Butina to meet, and we don’t know who she met. We don’t know who attended the dinners she arranged, and we don’t know the identity of the anonymous “Political Candidate” with whom she had a private meeting at the NRA’s annual members meeting in 2015.
We know that Congressman Dana Rohrabacher set up an August 2015 visit to Russia, where he met with an unnamed Russian official generally believed to be Torshin. Rohrabacher has long shown an affinity for Russia, such that Republican Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy once privately joked, “There’s two people I think Putin pays: Rohrabacher and Trump.”
We know that eight Republican Senators spent their Fourth of July break on a strange trip to Russia, where they met with the foreign minister and parliamentarians, and hoped to meet with Putin himself. The Senators claimed they were there to deliver a message that the U.S. would take a hard line with Russia, but this newly revealed information should call that claim into question.
The NRA spent an unprecedented amount in the 2016 election, and not all of it on Donald Trump. Even before the revelations of the Butina affidavit, many suspected the Kremlin was using the NRA to launder contributions to American political candidates. This makes anyone who received cash from the NRA suspect — Donald Trump, yes, but also people like North Carolina Senator Richard Burr, Marco Rubio, and Roy Blunt.
Alabama Senator Richard Shelby, who organized and led that July 4 Republican field trip to Russia, received nearly $280,000 from the NRA in February of 2016, roughly a year after Butina and Keene conspired to use the NRA as a back-channel between Russia and Republicans. All combined, those eight Republicans who visited Russia in July — and hoped to meet with Putin himself — received half a million dollars ($483,589, to be precise) in NRA donations in 2016. Were they visiting to send a tough message, or to shake the hand of their campaign donor?
It’s become common, following a school shooting, for activists to respond to Republican thoughts and prayers with the amount that official accepted in NRA donations. Now those numbers may serve another metric: Just how much is that official under the influence of Vladimir Putin?
Because it’s almost certainly true that Donald Trump and the Trump family owe some allegiance to Putin. We’ve seen all the evidence, from his idiot sons bragging about Russian funding for their real estate ventures, to the President’s lying denials about Putin’s direct influence on our election. I won’t list them all here. What’s important to recognize, though, is that Putin’s influence did not begin with Trump, and it will not end with Trump.
As we learned from the Butina filing, and will likely continue to learn from Robert Mueller’s investigation, Vladimir Putin’s Russia has infiltrated the Republican Party.