United States government officials have arrested a 29 year-old Russian national for conspiring to influence U.S. politics. Maria Butina was arrested in Washington on July 14 and appeared in court on July 16.
Butina's arrest was announced as Trump flew back from Helsinki to Washington, following an inaugural summit with Putin.
Butina, 29, was charged with conspiring to act as an agent of Russia "by developing relationships with U.S. persons and infiltrating organisations having influence in American politics," the Justice Department said.
In Russia, she is known as a fervent gun rights activist with ties to Alexander Torshin, a senior official with Russia's central bank and a former lawmaker. After her arrest, reports say that Butina, an alleged Kremlin agent, exploited her close links with the powerful NRA gun lobby while posing as a visiting graduate student to endear herself with senior Republicans, guided by Torshin, one of Russian President Vladimir Putin's major political supporters.
Prosecutors also said during her hearing that Butina offered an individual other than her alleged U.S. boyfriend with whom she was in a live in relationship, sex in exchange for a position within a special interest organisation". The documents do not name the organisation in question. But her social media accounts show she frequented National Rifle Association (NRA) events.
The U.S. Department of Justice alleges that Butina worked "under the direction and control" of a senior Russian official who is not named in charging documents. She tried to establish "back channel" lines of communication to "penetrate the U.S. national decision-making apparatus", the Justice Department said.
The BBC reports that court papers say the Russian official acted as her handler, and coached her through online messages. "Right now everything has to be quiet and careful," Butina allegedly wrote to her contact through a private Twitter message, a month before the 2016 presidential election.
On the night of the vote, court filings say she messaged the Russian official: "I'm going to sleep. It's 3 a.m. here. I am ready for further orders."
During the inauguration of President Donald Trump, she shared a photo of herself attending the event at the U.S. Capitol. "You're a daredevil girl!" her contact messaged her. What can I say!" she replied. "Good teachers."
At one point during the presidential election, she and a Russian official allegedly tried unsuccessfully to broker a meeting between Trump and Putin.
Butina pleaded not guilty to two criminal charges of conspiring to act as a foreign agent without registering, and acting as a foreign agent. The first charge brings a maximum five years in prison, while the second carries a maximum 10 years.
"This is not a spy case," her lawyer Robert Driscoll said after Butina appeared in court in an orange jumpsuit. "The government is speculating that someone is a Russian spy, but thousands of Russians met intelligence operatives" in the United States, he said.