From Russia With...?
August 16, 2019

Overstock CEO Patrick Byrne and convicted unregistered Russian foreign agent Maria Butina were romantically involved, Byrne and Butina's lawyer Robert Driscoll confirmed to The New York Times. But it's not clear why Byrne made that relationship public, first hinting about it in a strange Overstock press release Monday, or how it relates to what he calls a "Deep State" plot involving "political espionage conducted against Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump."

Byrne's accounting of their three-year relationship is pretty straightforward: Butina introduced herself at a libertarian conference in Las Vegas in July 2015, he wasn't interested in her pitch about her Russian gun-rights group but agreed to have breakfast with her when she said the top Russian central bank official she worked for wanted Byrne to come talk about blockchain technology in Moscow. They hit it off and kept in touch over text message, and the relationship quickly became romantic once they met at a New York hotel in September 2015.

Byrne, a self-described "56-year-old bachelor," says he grew suspicious of Butina, 30 and serving 18 months in prison, and her intentions as their relationship continued. Eventually, he told the Times, he began to communicate with the FBI about their interactions, during which Butina started talking more about meeting people involved in Clinton and Trump's presidential campaigns. Their relationship was concurrent with Butina's other known romantic involvement, with Republican operative Paul Erickson.

According to Driscoll, Byrne contacted him after Butina's sentencing and disclosed that he had been in contact with the FBI, and Byrne's story prompted him to write to Justice Department officials on July 25, claiming Byrne said he had "acted at the direction of the government and federal agents by, at their instruction, kindling a romantic relationship with her." Byrne didn't make that claim to the Times, but he did say he's still "quite fond" of Butina and he came forward because he thinks the feds mishandled its investigation of her. Peter Weber

December 11, 2018

Russian national Maria Butina will plead guilty Wednesday to working as an unregistered Russian agent "to establish unofficial lines of communication with Americans having power and influence over U.S. politics," with help from her American boyfriend, Republican operative Paul Erickson, and under the direction of Kremlin-linked banker Alexander Torshin, according to a draft plea agreement obtained by ABC News. "Butina sought to use those unofficial lines of communication for the benefit of the Russia Federation."

A 30-year-old purported gun-rights activist, Butina has been in jail since her arrest in July. She signed the plea deal on Dec. 8, and according to CNN, she is already cooperating with federal prosecutors in Washington, D.C. According to the plea deal, Butina said she and Erickson (identified as U.S. Person 1) drafted a proposal in March 2015, later sent to Torshin, in which she wrote she'd already "laid the groundwork for an unofficial channel of communication with the next U.S. administration," which she predicted would be Republican.

Butina traveled the U.S. and met with Republican presidential candidates in 2015, and in December of that year, she helped arrange a trip to Moscow for senior NRA leaders and donors, pushing them to meet with senior Russian officials, including Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Dmitry Rogozin, a deputy to Russian President Vladimir Putin. After that trip, according to U.S. prosecutors, Butina sent Torshin a message, translated to read: "We should let them express their gratitude now, we will put pressure on them quietly later."

Erickson, who's also reportedly a target of federal prosecutors in Washington, wrote an acquaintance in October 2016 that he has "been involved in securing a VERY private line of communication between the Kremlin and key [unnamed political party] leaders through, of all conduits, the [unnamed gun-rights organization]." On MSNBC Monday night, Rachel Maddow connected some speculative dots between the NRA, Russia, and the Trump campaign, and she noted Torshin's sudden "retirement." Watch below. Peter Weber

July 9, 2018

Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) came back from his June 30-July 5 trip to Russia with some new perspectives on the sanctions the U.S. imposed on Moscow after its annexation of Crimea and interference in the 2016 presidential election. "We need to take a look at sanctions — are they actually changing Russia's behavior?" he told Sirius XM Washington correspondent Olivier Knox on Friday. "And right now, unfortunately, I don't think they're particularly working from that standpoint."

The eight-Republican delegation to St. Petersburg and Moscow — led by Sen. Richard Shelby (Ala.) and including Johnson, Rep. Kay Granger (Texas) and Sens. Steve Daines (Mont.), John Hoeven (N.D.), John Kennedy (La.), Jerry Moran (Kan.), and John Thune (S.D.) — met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Russian lawmakers, though not President Vladimir Putin. "Members of the delegation set off on their trip late last week promising to be tough with Russian officials ahead of the president's visit, especially on matters of election interference," The Washington Post reported. "But they struck a conciliatory tone once there," which "played well in Moscow, but not on the home front."

Johnson told The Washington Examiner that the GOP delegation did hammer the Russians on Moscow's meddling in the 2016 election, but the Russians "would push back with all the ways we interfere in their politics in terms of funding NGOs, and Radio Free Europe and Voice of America," and "nobody yielded." At the same time, he added, "I've been pretty upfront that the election interference — as serious as that was, and unacceptable — is not the greatest threat to our democracy. ... We've blown it way out of proportion." Johnson also said some sanctions did have promise: "My sense is that the targeted sanctions to the oligarchs, to the members of government, are the ones that really sting and probably [offer] the best chance of affecting their behavior." Peter Weber

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