At Rockefeller Heir’s Dinner, Accused Russian Butina Hobnobbed With D.C. Elites
A scion of the Rockefeller clan, George D. O’Neill Jr., was one of the U.S. conservatives who allegedly helped Mariia Butina’s efforts to build a secret line of communication back to the Kremlin, judging by details in recent U.S. filings.
O’Neill, a 68-year-old sculptor and a rainmaker for conservatives since Pat Buchanan’s 1992 presidential run, hosted a private dinner in Washington, D.C., for a delegation of Russian dignitaries in town for a National Prayer Breakfast in early February 2017, he has said publicly and to Bloomberg last year. There, just days after President Donald Trump’s inauguration, the Russians met two Republican lawmakers and other conservative luminaries, he has said.
The dinner is also referenced in a trip itinerary given to Russian delegates traveling to Washington for the breakfast, which was reviewed by Bloomberg. Delegates also received a Russian-language rundown of the Americans they could expect to meet at the dinner. Among them were O’Neill and his wife, a Russian-speaking congressional aide and a conservative operative they were told was an adviser to the new Trump administration, according to a document reviewed by Bloomberg.
The timing and details of that early 2017 gathering matches one of several dinners that U.S. prosecutors refer to in charges they recently unveiled against Butina, accusing her of failing to declare her efforts to advance Russia’s interests in the U.S. Prosecutors identify the host only as U.S. Person 2. O’Neill didn’t respond to requests to verify that he was that person. The Justice Department declined to comment.
In comments last year, O’Neill told Bloomberg that his pre-prayer breakfast gathering was meant to support constructive dialogue and combat Russophobia.
But at least some of the Russians who came to the dinner had a more corrosive agenda, U.S. national security prosecutors now say, and wittingly or not, O’Neill may have helped Butina pursue her goal of establishing a “back channel” between the Kremlin and top Republicans. Though not referenced in the Butina filings, there have been other discussions about setting up such back channels — involving, according to news reports, Michael Flynn and Jared Kushner in late 2016 and Trump supporter Erik Prince in early 2017. Kushner later disclosed the discussion, and Prince has denied wrongdoing.
Alleging that Butina failed to disclose her efforts, the prosecutors have laid out a multiyear timeline culminating with the National Prayer Breakfast, the private dinner — and emails from Butina suggesting she’d realized some degree of success.
Before the prayer breakfast visit, Butina wrote in an email that the delegation of about a dozen Russians would include “VERY influential” people close to the Kremlin coming to establish a back channel of communications. They included a Russian close to President Vladimir Putin, who has been identified as Alexander Torshin. Afterward, according to another email cited by prosecutors, Butina wrote the person believed to be O’Neill to thank him for the “wonderful dinner.” She added: “My dearest President has received ‘the message’ about your group initiatives and your constructive and kind attention to the Russians.”
The specifics of those initiatives remain unclear. In federal court in Washington this week, prosecutors said additional details of the U.S. case against Butina shouldn’t be made public in order to protect their continuing investigation. Butina’s lawyer has dismissed prosecutors’ claims, saying she’s no Russian agent, just someone who was making friends.
In a letter to Bloomberg last year following initial reports about his event, O’Neill said he had hosted “a wonderful dinner” in February 2017 that was part of a series of gatherings “for American intellectuals in preparation for the time when Russians would feel more comfortable to participate in a dialog here.”
“Any clear thinking person with a cursory understanding of history and foreign policy knows the obvious benefits of good relations between America and Russia on many levels,” he wrote at the time. “One does not have to be a ‘useful idiot’ or a ‘Putin stooge’ to hold this view, nor does one have to approve of all of Russia’s or Putin’s actions, which can sometimes be problematic."
Additional details of the Russian delegation’s visit to Washington at that time emerge in the previously unreported documents reviewed by Bloomberg. While in Washington, the Russian delegates were scheduled to attend the private Russia-U.S. dinner on Jan. 31 and the prayer breakfast, as well as a dinner with organizers of the prayer breakfast, according to an itinerary for the five-day trip that has Butina’s name and telephone number at the bottom.
Russian invitees to the Jan. 31 dinner were also provided a list of a dozen Americans they could expect to meet there, complete with Russian-language biographical bullet points and color photos of most attendees. It’s unclear who compiled the guest list.
O’Neill and his wife are listed first, followed by Representative Dana Rohrabacher of California, who, the presentation noted, supports Russia’s annexation of Crimea. It closes with Paul Erickson, who is believed to be the U.S. Person 1 who appears throughout the Butina documents. Erickson is identified, in the Russian-language presentation, as a Trump administration adviser. It’s unclear whether he had such a role. The White House didn’t immediately comment.
Others on the list include Representative Thomas Massie, a Kentucky Republican (“in favor of Russian-American dialogue,” the list noted), and Hollywood director Ronald Maxwell (“under consideration to lead the Culture Ministry under Donald Trump,” “Dreams of making a film about Stalin-era repression”).
Rohrabacher and O’Neill are part of a circle of friends from the Reagan White House, who also included Buchanan and the late ambassador Faith Whittlesey, the mother of O’Neill’s ex-wife, according to Ken Grubbs, a Rohrabacher spokesman. Rohrabacher and O’Neill met just once regarding Russia, as far as the lawmaker could recall, and law enforcement officers haven’t questioned Rohrabacher about the Butina matter, Grubbs said.
Massie and Maxwell didn’t respond to requests for comment. Maxwellpreviously said Americans at the dinner urged their Russian guests to let the Kremlin know that Putin can help Trump by “being patient.” Once Trump locked up some major domestic victories, Maxwell said in the interview, he’d be in a better position to do what he wants internationally. Erickson didn’t respond to requests for comment.
‘Swimming Elephant Herd’
The Russian delegation’s leader, according to the documents, was Torshin. While not identified by name in the U.S. filings, Torshin is widely reported to be the official who maintained close contact with Butina after she founded a gun rights group in Russia in 2013. Torshin, a central banker and former top Russian lawmaker who’s now under U.S. sanctions, has previously been reported as having accompanied Butina to the early 2017 dinner and several other events with U.S. conservatives and gun-rights groups. He hasn’t responded to requests for comment.
After founding her Russian gun-rights group, Butina focused on making inroads with the National Rifle Association and other conservative groups, prosecutors have said. Many of her introductions came through the person believed to be Erickson, who served on the board of the American Conservative Union.
While O’Neill doesn’t have much of a reputation among gun-rights activists, he is an establishment conservative with a long history and sometimes colorful history. The great-grandson of John D. Rockefeller Jr., he has sat on the boards of several non-profit groups and manufacturers. He’s a sculptor with works including "Swimming Elephant Herd," which he gave to Britain’s Prince Charles. His acrimonious divorce two decades ago was the subject of afeature in Vanity Fair.
Over the years he’s bucked the Rockefeller family foundation’s support of liberal causes. An early booster of Buchanan, he’s donated to Massie and Rohrabacher. In October 2016, O’Neill gave $2,700 to Trump, according to public filings. O’Neill has long pressed for constructive dialogue with Russians, amid increasing tensions between the Obama White House and Putin, he said in March 2017 comments to Bloomberg. He has written multiple articles on the topic for the American Conservative, which is published by the American Ideas Institute, where he sits on the board of directors.
‘Friendship and Dialogue’
According to court filings, the person believed to be O’Neill began an effort to connect Butina to prominent conservatives in March 2016, as it became clear that Trump would become the Republican Party’s presidential nominee.
At that time, according to court filings, Butina emailed the two Americans believed to be Erickson and O’Neill that she wanted to arrange a series of “friendship and dialogue" dinners in Washington and New York in late May 2016.
As Erickson came up with the guest lists, O’Neill secured the RSVPs. In one email, Butina praised the host: The person believed to be Torshin was "very much impressed by you and expresses his great appreciation for what you are doing to restore relations between the two countries. He also wants you to know that Russians will support the efforts from our side,” she wrote.
Butina emailed him again a few days later, saying Torshin confirmed "his desire in our Russian-American project" and that a member of Putin’s administration had expressed approval for "building this communication channel."
In September 2016, with the election less than two months away, Butina again emailed the two Americans to urge another “friendship and dialogue" dinner in Washington in early October. The dinner took place on October 4, after which Butina reported to Torshin that "American society is broken in relation to Russia."
On the same day as that dinner, with U.S. elections about a month away, the person believed to be Erickson emailed an acquaintance, according to prosecutors. He wrote that he had been involved "in securing a VERY private line of communication between the Kremlin and key [Republican] leaders" through what the court filing describes is a gun-rights organization widely believed to be the National Rifle Association. The NRA hasn’t commented on the investigation.
‘Yes’ From Putin’s Side?
Butina emailed a few days later to the person believed to be O’Neill. Torshin, she wrote, confirmed "his desire in our Russian-American project." A member of president Putin’s administration had expressed approval for "building this communication channel,” she added, according to prosecutors. They added: “Butina additionally assured U.S. Person 2 that he should not worry as ‘all that we needed is <<yes>> from Putin’s side. The rest is easier.’ ”
The efforts to set up private channels may have paid off, prosecutors suggested in their filings.
Before the meeting, Butina wrote to the two Americans that the list of Russian visitors to the prayer breakfast was well curated. In addition to Torshin, she wrote, “the list is populated by important political advisors to Russian President Putin.”
A few days after the 2017 breakfast, Butina emailed an unidentified organizer of the event, according to U.S. filings, relaying thanks for the “precious time” that week “and for the very private meeting that followed.”
Butina added: “Once you have a chance to rest after last week’s events, I have important information for you to further this new relationship.”
Butina followed up with a thank-you email to the person believed to be O’Neill. "Our delegation cannot stop chatting about your wonderful dinner. My dearest President has received ‘the message’ about your group initiatives and your constructive and kind attention to the Russians,” she wrote, according to prosecutors.
— With assistance by Tom Schoenberg, and Evgenia Pismennaya
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