Is Paul Erickson, Maria Butina’s Boyfriend, The Pivotal Piece In The Trump-Russia Puzzle?
An indictment filed by federal prosecutors last week has added yet another potential twist to the saga surrounding Russia’s alleged interference in the 2016 election. Paul Erickson, a Republican and NRA activist has been charged with 11 felonies, including wire fraud and money laundering. The charges come several months after Erickson’s girlfriend, Maria Butina, was arrested on charges of being a spy for the Kremlin. In a piece written by James Bamford of The New Republic, Erickson described how sudden Butina’s arrest was. Having just graduated from American University with a Masters in International Affairs, Butina and Erickson were preparing for a move to South Dakota when investigators came knocking in July. At the time, Federal prosecutors labeled the relationship Butina shared with Erickson, as well as her studies, as a cover story to act as a Russian agent on United States soil.
Over the course of the next few months, Butina’s story, and the charges filed against her by the government would be tested. While the general narrative surrounding Butina and her case has indicated that her relationship with Erickson existed only due to his affiliation with American politics and NRA activism and the leverage this would give her in terms of her alleged function as a “spy,” Butina was involved in politics and gun rights activism well before she came to the United States. According to Bamford, Butina was very active in both politics and gun-rights activism in Russia, having both run for office and started a guns rights group in her hometown of Barnaul.
In September of 2018, a wrench was thrown into the gears of the investigation as prosecutors retracted claims they had initially made about Butina trading sex to gain access to political organizations. Prosecutors indicated they had been mistaken by this, citing a series of text messages as the reason for their initial accusations. These claims had been one of the key linchpins holding their accusations together.
Despite this misstep in proceedings by prosecutors, in December of 2018, Butina pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy against the United States. Butina admitted to “acting under the directive of” Alexander Torshin, a recently retired deputy governor of the Central Bank of Russia. Her job was to allegedly “infiltrate Republican political circles,” as described by CNN investigators Dugald McConnell and Brian Todd.
In spite of this guilty plea, Butina has become very vocal about her innocence in a recent interview with The New Republic. Butina has adamantly denied claims that she was in any way spying for Torshin, and in extension the Kremlin, citing claims that she traded sex for leverage within organizations such as the NRA as hurtful to both her and her family.
CNN spoke with Eric O’Neill, a former FBI agent, who says that he sees Butina’s story as a smoke-screen. According to O’Neill, the investigation yielded a chain of emails that could prove to be damning evidence. These emails indicate that Butina was indeed working to relay political information back to Russia.
It is unclear if Erickson’s indictment will have a direct impact on Butina’s case. As of now, the charges leveled against Erickson indicate that prosecutors merely believe that there could be a link between the fraud and money laundering and Butina’s function as a Russian intelligence operative. According to NPR, the story suggests Erickson simply defrauded investors by proposing ideas for health care business opportunities to obtain funds, but then used the money he received in other ways, but it has not been clarified as to what the money was actually used for.
There have been links presented in court papers suggesting that Erickson played a role in helping Butina pick targets for her intelligence work. The assertion that Erickson reached out to the Trump campaign back in 2016 with the motivation of acting as a conduit between campaign officials and the Kremlin was also outlined, which could further compromise Butina and her claims to innocence. Whatever the case may be, Erickson will no longer simply be seen as part of the fabric that made up Butina’s alleged shroud. His story will be brought to the forefront now, and what he reveals may indeed have an impact on Butina’s fate and finally reveal whether or not she has been spying under Torshin’s, and in extension the Kremlin’s directive.