GOP lawmaker says he met accused Russian agent at Thanksgiving barbecue

GOP lawmaker says he met accused Russian agent at Thanksgiving barbecue
© Greg Nash

South Carolina Rep. Mark SanfordMarshall (Mark) Clement SanfordAmash says he's happy not feeling 'bound to a particular party' 2020 Presidential Candidates Webb: When opinion becomes vitriol MORE (R) revealed this week that a Russian woman accused in a recent indictment of being a Russian agent attended a party last year held at his family farm.

Sanford, a frequent critic of the president, told CNN on Friday that Maria Butina and her then-boyfriend, Paul Erickson, were two of about 300 guests who joined the Sanfords at their farm in South Carolina last November for an annual Thanksgiving barbecue.

ADVERTISEMENT

"I did meet her, a few interactions were pleasant," Sanford told CNN. "It's the girlfriend of a guy I've known for 30 years. She seemed nice enough."

"We always have a big crowd at our farm for Thanksgiving, sort of a family-plus event, and so I invited [Erickson] to come down," he continued. "He brought his girlfriend."

The GOP congressman, who was defeated in a primary election earlier this year, added that he did not speak with Butina about any back-channel lines to the Kremlin, which the Justice Department says Butina attempted to do with many U.S. right-leaning politicians and organizations.

Erickson, Sanford said, told him that Butina was setting up a gun rights organization in Russia similar to the National Rifle Association (NRA), which the South Carolina lawmaker joked sounded like an "oxymoron."

"He said she was starting an NRA equivalent in Russia," Sanford said, telling CNN that he was shocked to see her named as an alleged Russian agent by the Justice Department on Monday.

"It wouldn't be what one would have surmised as to who's somebody's girlfriend is," Sanford added. 

The Justice Department said this week that Butina "worked at the direction of a high-level official in the Russian government" to set up secret lines of communication between sympathetic U.S. politicians and Moscow.

Russia denounced Butina's arrest in a series of tweets from the country's foreign ministry on Wednesday.

“According to a statement on the website of the US Justice Department, she is charged with conspiracy to act as an agent of Russia without prior notification,” the foreign ministry wrote.

“It looks as if the FBI, instead of carrying out their responsibility of fighting crime, is implementing a political put-up job set to it by forces that are whipping up anti-Russia hysteria in the US,” a second tweet read.