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[Francis Wilkinson] The accused Russian agent as Trump Republican

Here are some things we know about Maria Butina. She is a 29-year-old white woman with an enthusiasm for guns who has attended multiple National Rifle Association events, socialized with NRA leaders and repeated NRA talking points.

She attended Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s 2015 announcement seeking the Republican nomination for president, and later supported Republican Donald Trump for president. She attended the National Prayer Breakfast, a Republican gathering place, in Washington this year.

Butina published an article in a conservative journal advocating close ties between Republicans and United Russia, the party of Vladimir Putin, citing shared values and the Republican Party’s support from “social conservatives, businessmen and those that support an aggressive approach to the war against Islamic terrorism.”

In addition, she has had a romantic relationship with an older male Republican operative who introduced Butina to other Republicans and appears to be the type of entrepreneurial grifter that is a mainstay of movement conservatism.

The most obvious conclusion to draw from this brief profile? Butina is a Republican.

Federal prosecutors might dispute that characterization. They jailed Butina last weekend on charges that she is a Russian agent who worked surreptitiously, on orders from a close crony of Vladimir Putin’s, to subvert US politics for Russia’s benefit. But in the era of Trump, days after a summit in Helsinki, Finland, that forced the entire world to reckon with just how blatantly subservient the American president is to the Russian president, the distinction between Russian and Republican is not what it once was.

Butina appears to have been shrewd enough to recognize that herself. In 2015, she made a trip to South Dakota and spoke to a teen Republican group. According to Dusty Johnson, a South Dakota Republican and current congressional candidate who attended the event, Butina “described Putin as a dictator and a tyrant.”

That, at least, was her message to the kids in flyover country. Back in Washington, however, where Butina assiduously courted conservative activists in the gun movement and the religious right, she recognized that her new friends were engaged in a racial struggle and culture war so intense that they might be open, even eager, to align with Putin to defeat their real enemy: fellow Americans.

Putin is a thug, but for Trump, obviously, and for many of his conservative acolytes, increasingly, Putin is a thug to admire. Polls have shown rising Republican support for Putin’s Russia despite Russian military aggression in Eastern Europe, Russian carnage in Syria, Russian murders of journalists and of Putin’s political opponents, and even Russian cyberattacks against the US. According to a 2017 Pew survey, the share of Republicans expressing confidence in Putin doubled from 2015 to 2017, from 17 percent to 34 percent.

Like Trump, some Republicans have weighed Russia’s attack on the Democratic Party in 2016 and concluded that they very much like what they saw. Two-thirds of Republicans approved of Trump’s summit in Helsinki, where the only known accomplishment was Trump’s obsequious exoneration of previously documented Russian sabotage. As the Trump team’s collusion with Russia, both open and covert, has come into clearer focus, many Republicans are moving from “No Collusion!” to “So what?” as their inevitable default.

Yet in a Republican Party where many are still wary of gangster politics, Butina chose her targets well. The gun militants of the NRA and the Christian militants of the religious right are Trump’s most unflinching supporters and pillars of the Republican Party’s authoritarian-racial wing. Those who are not already fans of Putin’s racist, homophobic, macho and militaristic Mother Russia are increasingly Putin-curious.

Putin clearly sees the potential for transnational white Christian solidarity. Dozens of Russians attended the most recent National Prayer Breakfast in February.

As the New York Times reported: In 2013, Bryan Fischer, then a spokesman for the American Family Association, called Putin a “lion of Christianity.” In 2014, Franklin Graham -- the politically influential evangelist and vocal Trump supporter -- defended Putin for his efforts “to protect his nation’s children from the damaging effects of any gay and lesbian agenda,” even as he lamented that Americans have “abdicated our moral leadership.” In December 2015, Graham met privately with Putin for 45 minutes.

Butina didn’t camouflage her Putin connections in courting the NRA. She flaunted them. She worked as an assistant to Alexander Torshin, a Putin crony, oligarch and high-ranking member of United Russia, who had already been welcomed into the NRA’s embrace with a lifetime membership and social engagements with NRA leaders -- despite credible allegations that he has connections to organized crime.

Butina arranged a 2015 NRA trip to Moscow under the auspices of Right to Bear Arms, a small, strange Russian gun-rights group that she ostensibly leads -- though she has been in the US on a student visa since 2016 -- and which apparently remains unoppressed by a Russian government with little interest in large numbers of citizens bearing arms. Butina called the group a “Russian version of the NRA.” A 2012 article in the New Republic described it as “a soup of communists and nationalists.”

One NRA luminary on the trip, right-wing provocateur David Clarke, was Milwaukee County sheriff at the time and included the trip on a county financial disclosure form. According to Clarke’s disclosure, the little Russian version of the NRA was flush enough with funds to pay $6,000 of Clarke’s expenses in Russia.

Clarke tweeted that the NRA delegation had met with the Russian foreign minister, further evidence both that Butina’s outreach to the NRA was blessed at the highest level of the Russian government and that the NRA understood that very well. In pushing Republican gun extremists to ally with Putin’s Russia, Butina appears to have been pushing on a door that, at the very least, was flimsy and ajar.

In documents filed in Butina’s case, the US Department of Justice wrote, “Moscow seeks to create wedges that reduce trust and confidence in democratic processes, degrade democratization efforts, weaken US partnerships with European allies, undermine Western sanctions, encourage anti-US political views, and counter efforts to bring Ukraine and other former Soviet states into European institutions.”

Just as Willie Sutton frequented banks in search of money, the implication of the criminal case against Butina is that she targeted the Republican Party because that’s where the extremism and authoritarianism are. To the current leader of the Republican Party, and to millions of his followers, the Justice Department’s description of Moscow’s espionage doesn’t read like an indictment. It reads like an agenda.

Francis Wilkinson
Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and US domestic policy for Bloomberg Opinion. -- Ed.