Texas Rep. Weber’s forays into Russian politics may include meeting with accused agent Maria Butina
WASHINGTON - Alleged Russian agent Maria Butina has caused a stir in Congress since an indictment last week accused her of trying to influence conservative organizations and politicians.
But if the red-haired, 29-year-old gun-rights activist from Siberia ever met Texas Congressman Randy Weber, she appears not to have made much of an impression.
The Republican from Friendswood, a former member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said through a spokeswoman Tuesday that Butina was scheduled to participate in a 2015 meeting he had with then-Russian Central Bank Deputy Governor Alexander Torshin, but that he does not recall whether she actually attended.
Torshin, who has close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin, reportedly has had a number of encounters in recent years with high-level Americans, ranging from Obama-era Federal Reserve Vice Chairman Stanley Fischer to Donald Trump Jr., who he met at a National Rifle Association event in Kentucky in 2016.
Working with Butina, Torshin has since been linked in congressional probes to covert Russian attempts to open a “backdoor” channel to the Trump campaign.
Butina’s federal indictment has conjured up images of James Bond-style intrigue at the highest levels of government. But for Weber, a former Pearland city council member and heating and air conditioning man, it was just another day at the office.
“The meeting was three years ago, lasted maybe 20 minutes, and was in accordance with the course of ordinary business,” his spokeswoman, Emma Polefko, wrote in an email.
Weber’s office said there were no follow-up meetings with Torshin. But their encounter would not be the last time the three-term congressman got involved in Russian politics or other international machinations, though not on the scale of legendary Texas Congressman Charlie Wilson, who worked to arm Afghan freedom fighters in a 1980s war against invading Soviets.
A year after the meeting with Torshin, Weber introduced a resolution critical of government officials in the former Soviet state of Moldova, a move that some saw as playing into the hands of Russia. A year later, he accused Russia of working with environmental groups to undermine the U.S. fracking industry.
U.S.-Russia relations was subject of Torshin meeting
Meeting notes kept by Weber’s office indicate the sitdown with Torshin and Butina was also attended by Paul Saunders, executive director of the Center for the National Interest, a Washington-based foreign policy think tank that set up the meeting with Torshin.
But Weber said he does not recall if Saunders was at his meeting.
The meeting seemed of no great moment to Saunders, either. “He said that this took place more than three years ago and he does not recall anything about that meeting or whether he or others participated,” said Adam Lammon, a spokesman for the think tank, in an email to the Chronicle.
It would not have been unusual for Butina to accompany Torshin to a meeting with an American congressman. The two have long been known to work together, and Lammon noted that Torshin took Butina with him to another meeting at the think tank to serve as his interpreter.
The meeting between Weber and Torshin - and possibly Butina - was first reported by Reuters, which viewed think tank documents outlining its Russia-related activities from 2013 to 2015. Saunders, who also serves as a national security expert for the group, has urged President Donald Trump to dial back tensions with Russia.
The think tank, founded in 1994 by former President Richard Nixon, bills itself as “a voice for strategic realism in U.S. foreign policy.”
Weber’s office said that his meeting with Torshin was in line with his position as a member of the Foreign Affairs subcommittee on Europe, Eurasia and Emerging Threats. Polefko said the meeting was requested to discuss U.S.-Russia relations, international economic issues, and Weber’s views on Russia’s financial situation.
Weber once accused Sierra Club of Russian collusion
Until he moved over to the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee last year, Weber maintained an active interest in Russian affairs - a portfolio that was not without controversy.
In 2016, Weber introduced a seemingly benign anti-corruption resolution supporting the former Soviet state of Moldova. However some Moldovans and U.S. foreign policy experts said it played into the hands of pro-Russian factions in that country’s presidential election.
Richard Grenell, now Trump’s ambassador to Germany, accused Weber of getting dragged into a murky foreign political imbroglio, telling the Chronicle at the time, “Weber does not know what he’s doing.”
Weber defended the resolution as an effort to combat Russian influence.
A year after he proposed the Moldovan resolution, Weber joined with San Antonio Republican Lamar Smith in accusing the Russians of using an off-shore shell company in Bermuda to fund the Sierra Club and other environmental organizations in a “covert anti-fracking” campaign to foster global dependence on Russian gas.
The Sierra Club called the charge a “preposterous” conspiracy theory backed by the U.S. oil industry.
“Here’s what the deal is,” Weber said in an interview last August. “They’re over here trying to keep our oil in the ground because Russia wants to sell oil and gas to Eastern Europe.”
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While Weber has proven no friend of Russia, he has remained a strong supporter of Trump, who has come under fire from Democrats as well as some Republicans for questioning U.S. intelligence conclusions about Russian meddling in the 2016 election.
With her arrest last week, Butina has now emerged as the latest flashpoint in the controversy, with the FBI accusing her of conspiring to act as an unregistered foreign agent to “penetrate the U.S. national decision-making apparatus to advance the agenda of the Russian federation.”