In 2018, impunity came to an end.
Ever since the 2016 election, it’s been common for some people to refer to whatever year we’re in as a synonym for dystopian weirdness. (Last year, for example, CNN’s Jake Tapper tweeted “Peak 2017” about a headline saying, “US ambassador denies own comments, then denies denial.”) The world has felt continuously off-kilter, like a TV drama whose writers developed a sudden fondness for psilocybin. Last month astronomers at Harvard wrote that a strange oblong space object “may be a fully operational probe sent intentionally to Earth vicinity by an alien civilization,” and it barely made a ripple in the news. There was simply too much else going on.
Amid this ceaseless barrage, things many of us have taken for granted have been called into question, including the endurance of liberal democracy, the political salience of truth and the assumption that it would be a big scandal if a president were caught directing illegal payoffs to a pornographic film actress. Often it feels like in American politics, none of the old rules still apply.
.. But in 2018, they did. (At least some of them.) Alien probes aside, this was a year in which things started to make sense again. The Democratic landslide in the midterms proved that the laws of political gravity haven’t been suspended; Trump’s incompetence, venality and boorishness had electoral consequences. Further, it was a year of justice and accountability for at least some of those who foisted this administration on the country. An awful menagerie of lowlifes was swept into power by Trump’s victory two years ago. In 2018, at least some of them started to fall back out again.
.. At the beginning of 2018,
- Michael Cohen was still Trump’s loyal personal lawyer.
- Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign chairman, was sleeping in his own bed at night.
- Rick Gates, Manafort’s deputy, had not yet made a plea deal with Robert Mueller, the special counsel.
- Mueller’s investigation hadn’t yet sent anyone to prison.
- The Dutch lawyer Alex van der Zwaan, who pleaded guilty to lying to the F.B.I. about work he’d done with Gates for the former Ukrainian president, became the first, in May.
- He was followed by Richard Pinedo, seller of fake IDs and fraudulent bank accounts,
- and former Trump campaign adviser George Papadopoulos.
When this year began,
- Scott Pruitt was still indulging in spectacular corruption as head of the Environmental Protection Agency.
- Omarosa Manigault Newman had just been fired from her senior administration job and had not yet revealed her stash of secret recordings.
- Rob Porter, who has been accused of abuse by two ex-wives, was still White House staff secretary.
- David Sorensen, accused of abuse by one ex-wife, was still a White House speechwriter.
At the start of 2018, the
- casino mogul Steve Wynn was the Republican National Committee’s national finance chairman. He resigned after The Wall Street Journal reported that he’d been accused of committing multiple acts of sexual harassment and assault. (Wynn denied assaulting anyone.)
- Elliott Broidy, owner of a private security company, was an R.N.C. deputy national finance chairman. He resigned after The Journal reported that he’d paid hush money to a former Playboy model who said she’d had an abortion after he got her pregnant.
- (Cohen was also a deputy chairman; he resigned in June.)
As this year began,
- Steve Bannon, Trump’s former campaign head and chief White House strategist, whose sympathy for white nationalists did so much damage in so little time, was still running Breitbart News. He’d not yet burned his bridges to Trumpworld with his comments in Michael Wolff’s book “Fire and Fury,” which was published in January. Since then, Bannon has lost considerable pull. He most recently made headlines after he was scheduled to speak at a conference on sex robots; a backlash to his invitation led to the conference being postponed.
- McClatchy reported that the F.B.I. was investigating whether Russia funneled money through the National Rifle Association to aid the Trump campaign. Throughout the year, as evidence of sketchy connections between the N.R.A. and Russia kept emerging, many on the right poo-pooed it. (“This attempt to turn the N.R.A. into another cog in the Russian conspiracy is laughable, but the mainstream media apparently still find it deeply compelling,” wrote Breitbart editor Joel Pollak in March.)
- On Thursday, Maria Butina, a Russian who’d nurtured ties to N.R.A. leadership and to Trumpworld, pleaded guilty to conspiring to act as a foreign agent. The plea described how, after arranging a junket to Moscow for a “Gun Rights Organization,” she wrote a message to her handler that was translated as, “We should allow them to express their gratitude now, we will put pressure on them quietly later.”
And it raises the question of was this gun rights organization in Russia a real thing? I mean, you can look back and say maybe it was part of a Russian sponsored initiative to connect with conservatives and find a way into Republican politics. Is that a stretch?
HELDERMAN: Experts I’ve spoken to say, no, it’s really not a stretch. We don’t know for certain that that’s why it, in fact, happened. But they do say it’s very odd to think of an organic gun rights group in Russia. Vladimir Putin is an autocratic leader. There have been street protests over the years in Moscow and elsewhere that he has not appreciated and has done real crackdowns against. And so, the notion that he would allow a group to push to arm the citizenry is very unlikely. What we’ve been told is that this group would have been done at least with the approval and knowledge of the government, if not its sort of direction. And so you do have this kind of question, was this all an attempt to make ties with American conservatives?
.. DAVIES: In 2013, Maria Butina and Alexander Torshin invite David Keene, who was then the president of the National Rifle Association – right? – to Russia with some other American gun enthusiasts. Why would members of the NRA be interested in Russia? What was this about?
HELDERMAN: Well, I think that one thing that happens in this time period is people are intrigued by the idea of gun rights in Russia. You know, a lot of people at the NRA sort of came out of the anti-Soviet movement. And the notion that freedoms were opening up, particularly the freedoms that they valued like the right to own a gun, were opening up, was quite interesting. I also understand that the trip was quite fun. This was a trip to attend the annual meeting of Maria Butina’s group, The Right To Bear Arms. And so there were dinners and there were events. We’re told one event was a fashion show featuring women wearing clothing with – designed for concealed carry.
One person who was at that event told us that he went to dinner with Maria Butina and Alexander Torshin, he and his wife, and they presented him with very carefully chosen gifts that showed that they had researched he and his wife’s interests. Special fabric for his wife who was a needlepointer and stamps for him. He was a stamp collector. And so it was a fun trip. There was also a lot of hunting, big-game hunting in the wilds of Russia that a lot of NRA folks were quite interested in.
.. You can kind of see what her appeal would have been at an NRA convention to the leadership there to – you know, the men. And it’s not entirely men, but it is largely older men who are running that organization. She had a sort of frontiers woman quality that I think a lot of people found appealing.
She had grown up in Siberia, which is quite exotic. She talked about how she had lived in the forests of Siberia, where she had learned to hunt bears and wolves. She had, at a very early age, started a chain of furniture stores that had been, apparently, somewhat successful and then sold the chain and moved to Moscow with the proceeds to kind of make her way in the world. So she was kind of a capitalist. She was, obviously, attractive. She was a real networker. She would urge people to become friends with her on Facebook. She would hand out her card. She was very friendly, wanted to make friends with people.
.. And the other thing that we’ve heard was that some people assumed that because she ran this gun rights group, she was actually sort of anti-Putin. I don’t think she would make comments against the government. But there was a sort of assumption that Russia was a restrictive society. And so she was doing something sort of feisty and rebellious by organizing this group. And it doesn’t seem as though people gave a lot of thought to the fact that that was probably a sign that the government was actually supporting her. And of course Alexander Torshin was part of the Putin government.
.. But conservatives had started to become intrigued with Putin’s Russia around a few issues. And one of them, as you noted, is conservative Christians. Russia was a much more traditional society than ours. There’s a valuing of traditional gender roles that many conservative Christians find appealing.
The Russian government has also been very famously anti-gay rights, which Christian conservatives also appreciated. There’s also been a renewal of the Orthodox Church, which is something that Vladimir Putin has really advanced for his own goals in many cases. And so there’s been this kind of intrigue for American conservatives in what’s been going on in Russia.
.. Pat Buchanan wrote an opinion column in 2013 urging Americans to take another look at Putin. You see American conservatives who actually go to Russia and testify in front of the Duma in favor of anti-gay laws. There are various kinds of conferences that are held. Torshin actually hosted or helped host in Moscow his own prayer breakfast, kind of similar to the National Prayer Breakfast that you see here in Washington each year. It brought together Russian Orthodox leaders. But some American Christians started to go to Russia to attend that event. And so that was a way for Torshin to meet Americans as well.
.. We now know that Mr. Torshin, in his role as a banker, had some meetings with U.S. government officials in 2015 at the Federal Reserve that Ms. Butina also attended. And so they would go back and forth from Russia to the United States meeting people. And Maria Butina’s social media is sort of full of photos of her meeting high-profile people – Scott Walker, Bobby Jindal.
She, in fact, attended the kick-off of Scott Walker’s presidential campaign in Wisconsin. That was at a time when Scott Walker was considered the likely frontrunner in the field, so she seemed to show some particular interest in the man who was thought to be the leading candidate.
.. It was an event called FreedomFest, which was a gathering of libertarians in Las Vegas in July of 2015. So this was just really a few weeks after Donald Trump had announced that he was running for president. And Marco Rubio spoke at this event. Donald Trump spoke at this event. And she made her way to a microphone in a big crowd and asked then-candidate Trump, essentially, what’s your position on Russia? And what do you think of sanctions?
.. And as far as we can tell, it looks like this might have been the first time he was asked about those issues on the presidential campaign trail. And he, for the first time, offered what became kind of his standard response on those questions, which was that, you know, I know Putin. I get along with Putin. Of course, he didn’t actually know Putin. He had never met him. But that was something he said frequently on the campaign trail. So he said he knew Putin. He got along with him. And he thought it was a good thing if the United States could get along with Russia.
.. The government says that there is evidence of that. They have started to introduce some of it in court. I imagine we’ll see more over time. Largely, it comes in the form of messages sent back and forth between her and Alexander Torshin. Apparently, they exchanged thousands of messages through the direct message function of Twitter. And in some of those messages, they have quite explicit conversations about how she can advance the interests of the Kremlin to build better ties between the U.S. and Russia through her work here. There is even a message on the night of the election where she writes to him. You know, they have sort of a long conversation celebrating Donald Trump’s election. And then, she writes to him, I await your orders.
.. Now, I should say her lawyer is very insistent, a zealous advocate for his client, very insistent that she is exactly what you just described – an interested student who wanted to learn about American politics, was not employed by the Russian government and that the messages we’ve seen so far from the U.S. government are cherry-picked notes amongst thousands between two people who had a close personal relationship. And so, you know, we’ll see how that plays out in court. You know, it is true that this is not exactly advanced tradecraft that you might…
HELDERMAN: …Imagine from intelligence operatives. You know, they weren’t really hiding their activities. They were pictured together all the time. She accompanied him to events. And, you know, you don’t generally imagine spies exchanging messages through Twitter.
.. You were describing how Maria Butina and Alexander Torshin, this prominent Russian, were active in developing relationships in the United States with Republicans, with conservatives, with people in the National Rifle Association. Maria Butina also developed a close relationship with a guy who is described in the government filings, I believe, as U.S. person number one. We believe this is Paul Erickson, right? Tell us about him.
HELDERMAN: Paul Erickson is a figure who’s been sort of at the edges of Republican politics going way, way back. He went to Yale as an undergraduate, where he was a classmate of Jack Abramoff, the lobbyist who went to jail a few years ago. He was active supporting Reagan in the ’80s. And he served as a key campaign official in the presidential campaign of Pat Buchanan. And he was a frequent attender of things like NRA meetings and CPAC meetings, knows a lot of people in the movement in the party.
Our understanding is that he was in the group who went to Moscow in 2013, and that that’s where he and Maria Butina met. And that shortly after that, they began a romantic relationship of some kind. And he would then help her on her trips, introduce her to people, take her around, take her to parties. Their relationship then, I think, became closer when Maria Butina arrived in the United States to attend graduate school in August of 2016.
DAVIES: Right. So he was sort of an important part of her developing network of political relationships.
HELDERMAN: Yeah, that’s right. He was an important part of introducing her to important people. And one of the things that’s quite interesting about Paul Erickson is the question of what he thought Maria’s relationship was with the government of Russia. There are some emails that have been submitted in court that suggest he was very aware of the fact that her goal was to advance the interests of the government. Now, I should say he has not been charged with anything. He’s been accused of no wrongdoing. But it does seem as though he had quite a lot of awareness of her activities.
There was even a document seized from his apartment, a sort of bullet point list where he is describing things having to do with Maria Butina’s Russian patriots in waiting. And one of the bullet points actually says, how to respond to FSB job offer. It says something very similar to that. And FSB, of course, is the Russian intelligence service. It’s the successor agency to the KGB. So he seemed to be aware of some kind of job offer from the FSB. We haven’t heard a lot more about that yet, but I imagine we’ll be hearing more from the government or potentially from Mr. Erickson as the court case against Maria Butina proceeds.
.. HELDERMAN: So the government has alleged that this relationship was duplicitous, essentially suggesting it was just part of her cover story. It was a way to be able to live in the United States. They’ve said that they’ve seized documents in which she complains about Paul Erickson and specifically expresses disdain that she has to live with him. And, of course, they’ve alleged that she was offering sex to other people, and particularly, offering sex in exchange for some kind of position or job with a special interest organization.
DAVIES: Right. She was 29. He was 56, right?
HELDERMAN: That’s right. There was a dramatic age difference between them. And, you know, we’ve talked to some of her classmates at American University who talked about how they were a sort of known couple on campus. She would bring him to social events. And that caused a lot of kind of murmuring and chattering. Her classmates were typically in their 20s, many of them actually younger than she was at 29. And so she was bringing this man who was decades her senior to, you know, college parties.
.. DAVIES: Is there also an allegation that she contacted a group on the left in a way that aroused suspicions of cyber penetration or something?
HELDERMAN: Yeah. This is something that we at The Washington Post have reported. So the program that she was in at American University, her particular concentration was cybersecurity, which perhaps one might think that is suspicious or at least ironic, but that was her area of interest. And we know that in the summer of 2017, she reached out to a progressive civil rights organization in the Washington area and said that she was a graduate student at American University. And that as part of a school project, she was interested in meeting with them and interviewing them about their cyber vulnerabilities.
At the time that the group received this email, there had already been some press coverage about her, long stories about her work with Torshin and her work with the NRA. The group sent this to their IT security consulting company. It’s the person who runs that company is who told us about this. He got that email and was immediately suspicious and right away picked up the phone and called the FBI.
.. HELDERMAN: It is easy to look at these things and say, what’s wrong with this? She went to public events. She went to dinners. On the other hand, I think it’s worth remembering that counterintelligence folks will tell you that this is the stuff of influence operations, that, you know, it is not usually riding around in cars – in trunks of cars and dead drops necessarily. It’s going to academic conferences. It’s cozying up to business leaders. It’s collecting all kinds of intelligence on kind of American power centers.
And one of the things that’s really interesting here is, if indeed this was a Russian influence operation, it shows a real sophisticated understanding of the U.S. political system to understand that the way to potentially shape conservative and Republican politics is not necessarily to only target it or try to influence elected leaders but to work through these very powerful special interest groups, particularly the NRA. That just shows real understanding of how the U.S. works.
.. HELDERMAN: Yeah. It’s interesting. Congressman Rohrabacher is an example of a number of people you see who were very active in the anti-Soviet movement in the ’80s and now have become what appears outwardly pro-Russian. It seems to be part of what they have found intriguing about Putin’s Russia is that they believe it kind of represents a full 180 shift from Soviet times. Under the Soviet Union, religion, of course, was persecuted. Now, the Putin government very strongly promotes the Orthodox Church.
.. I think one thing that’s important to understand is that, you know, there’s a continuum in Russia that we, as Americans, maybe would find unfamiliar. I think we sort of view people as either spies or not spies.
And in Russia, the state touches far more aspects of life than what we are used to here. So you have all kinds of people who aren’t necessarily working for the government but are sometimes asked by government officials, by intelligence officials to kind of sit down for a little chat and provide information about the trip they just took to America or the business meeting they just had. And that’s just the way life works in Russia. The government requires much more of you as a citizen. And so many more people can be seen as acting on behalf of the government than I think we are accustomed to.
There is no right to bear arms in Russia, and under this regime there never will be. According to court papers, Butina nevertheless convinced some naive members of the National Rifle Associationthat she was a genuine activist. In doing so, she gained access to their world.
.. They were both seeking to assist political movements they believed to be pro-Kremlin (the Communist Party of the 1930s; the pro-gun wing of the Republican Party of the 2010s). They were both backed by Kremlin money, diverted through cutouts (the Communist International, in the former instance; a couple of Russian oligarchs, allegedly, in the latter).
.. Butina, even if considering only her role as an open, pro-Kremlin activist, also has many counterparts, agents of influence who are openly agitating for Russian interests, now on the far-right edge of Western politics instead of the far-left.
- Gianluca Savoini, the leader of the enigmatic Lombardy-Russia Cultural Association, seems to perform a similar role in Italian politics, even showing up recently as a member of an official Italian government delegation to Moscow.
- Bela Kovacs , a Hungarian member of the European Parliament, is on trial in Budapest on a charge of spying on European Union institutions on behalf of Russia.
.. they too are part of a long-term project, though it’s not a proletarian revolution. Instead, it’s a kleptocratic coup d’état: The modern Kremlin project seeks to undermine Western democracies, break up the E.U. and NATO, and put corrupt relationships rather than the rule of law at the center of international commerce.
.. it’s worth remembering why Golos and his network failed. In large part,
- it was because the center-left — especially the anti-Soviet wing of the American trade union movement — rejected Soviet-style communism in the United States. It’s also because,
- in the 1940s and 1950s, the American political establishment, Democratic and Republican, unified around the need to defeat Soviet-style communism in Europe. And it’s because,
- even in the depths of the Depression, the majority of Americans were never beguiled by the appeal of authoritarianism.
.. A wing of the Republican Party is preparing to double down and support the Russian autocracy, which it believes, mistakenly, is “Christian.”
.. To push back against them, as well as their equivalents from the rest of the autocratic world, we will need not only to catch the odd agent but also to
- make our political funding systems more transparent, to
- write new laws banning shell companies and money laundering, and to
- end the manipulation of social media.
It took more than a generation for Americans to reject the temptations of communist authoritarianism; it will take more than a generation before we have defeated kleptocratic authoritarianism too — if we still can.
With a lineup of prayer meetings, humanitarian forums and religious panels, the National Prayer Breakfast has long brought together people from all over the world for an agenda built around the teachings of Jesus.
But there on the guest list in recent years was Maria Butina, looking to meet high-level American officials and advance the interests of the Russian state, and Yulia Tymoshenko, a Ukranian opposition leader, seeking a few minutes with President Trump to burnish her credentials as a presidential prospect back home.
Their presence at the breakfast illuminates the way the annual event has become an international influence-peddling bazaar, where foreign dignitaries, religious leaders, diplomats and lobbyists jockey for access to the highest reaches of American power.
The subculture around the breakfast was thrust into the spotlight last week with the indictment of Ms. Butina, who was charged with conspiring to act as a Russian agent. Her goals, prosecutors said, included gaining access to the breakfast “to establish a back channel of communication” between influential Russians and Americans “to promote the political interests of the Russian Federation.”
.. Ms. Butina’s spy-thriller-like tactics hint at the more widespread, if less sensational, international maneuvering that pervades the prayer breakfast, and the lucrative opportunities it creates for Washington’s corps of lobbyists and fixers, according to more than half a dozen people who have been involved in peddling access around the event.
.. Ahead of Mr. Trump’s first appearance at the breakfast last year, some of the people said, foreign politicians clamored for tickets, with some offering to pay steep fees to get into the event and the myriad gatherings on its sidelines.
One lobbyist, Herman J. Cohen, offered what he billed as an exclusive invitation to last year’s breakfast, and three days of meetings around it, to an African leader for $220,000.
.. “It’s an opportunity,” Mr. Cohen said of the event. “If I go to the prayer breakfast, I have a good chance of maybe shaking the president’s hand or talking to him for two minutes.”
“In a way, it bypasses protocols,” he added, “but in a way, it is taking advantage of people being present in the same venue.” Such invitations to foreign leaders, he said, are “very useful to them back home.”
.. Some describe the gathering as similar to the World Economic Forum, except that Jesus is the organizing principle. The eclectic guest list has included the Dalai Lama, the Rev. Billy Graham, Mother Teresa, the singer Bono and the former Redskins coach Joe Gibbs, as well as the Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat and President Paul Kagame of Rwanda.
.. With its relative lack of diplomatic protocols and press coverage, the prayer breakfast setting is ideal for foreign figures who might not otherwise be able to easily get face time with top American officials, because of unsavory reputations or a lack of an official government perch, according to lobbyists who help arrange such trips. They also contend that it is easier to secure visas when the breakfast is listed as a destination.
.. “You can’t just invite wonderful, exciting, great people,” said Mr. Hall. “Jesus, when he went to dinner, he went to dinner with everybody.”