The Mueller Thread: From Red Scorpion to Red Sparrow

The Mueller Thread: From Red Scorpion to Red Sparrow

From left: Paul Erickson, Robert Mueller and Maria Butina

SourceComposite Sean Culligan/OZY, Image Getty

Why you should care

Because sometimes life imitates art, and sometimes it turns it on its head completely.

Based on OZY’s hit podcast The Thread, which delves into surprising connections in history, The Mueller Thread weaves together the strands linking the sprawling investigations around President Donald Trump.

No film quite captures the kitschy violence and Cold War paranoia of its time quite like Red Scorpion. The 1988 anti-communist action flick stars the sweaty and invariably topless Dolph Lundgren — the Swedish actor who’s made a small fortune playing scowling Soviet man-killers like Ivan Drago in Rocky IV — as a rogue Russian Rambo who turns on his mother country when it cuts him loose following the botched assassination of an African rebel leader. “They think they control him,” the film’s posters and trailers declared. “Think again.”

Red Scorpion was the cocksure brainchild of Jack Abramoff, the American lobbyist who would later become the black-fedora-wearing poster boy for D.C. corruption. An executive producer on the film — and Abramoff’s good friend — was a longtime Republican consultant named Paul Erickson. Thirty years later, Erickson finds himself starring in another made-for-Hollywood Russian political thriller alongside his girlfriend, Maria Butina, a red-haired femme fatale who recently pleaded guilty to conspiracy charges in connection with Russian attempts to influence the 2016 presidential election. And now, with federal prosecutors closing in, it’s time to see whether Erickson can, like Lundgren, elude his would-be captors long enough to ride off into a red sunset.

Erickson would be the first American in the Trump-Russia investigation to be charged under a statute that Justice Department lawyers describe as “espionage-lite.”

When Abramoff was the burly, baby-faced chair of the College Republicans in the early 1980s, Erickson, a lanky, Ivy League–educated South Dakotan, was the body’s treasurer. The College Republicans quickly garnered a reputation as rabid anti-communist renegades. “When we were bored late at night, and we didn’t feel like the senior Republican Party was doing quite enough to battle communism,” Erickson once told Mother Jones, “we would buy … some concrete blocks … drape a Soviet flag over the top of them, soak the flag in kerosene, light it — and then, with sledgehammers, break down the Berlin Wall.”

Red Scorpion, reportedly financed in part by the apartheid government of South Africa, was the natural outgrowth of such political theater. But Abramoff and Erickson didn’t stop with fictional tales of African strongmen. In 1995, Erickson teamed up with Abramoff again to lobby the State Department to grant besieged Congolese dictator Mobutu Sese Seko asylum in the U.S. One of the men Erickson enlisted to help with the Mobutu project was David Keene, a Washington lobbyist and future president of the National Rifle Association. Nearly 20 years later, Erickson and Keene teamed up again, and it was thanks to Keene that Erickson met the woman and the cause that seem to have altered his Red Scorpion view of the Russian state.

According to an FBI affidavit, it was with Keene at a Right to Bear Arms conference in Moscow in 2013 that an individual identified as “U.S. Person 1” (almost certainly Erickson) first made contact with a young Russian woman named Maria Butina. Not unlike the Russian protagonist played by Jennifer Lawrence in the recent spy thriller Red Sparrow, Butina had metamorphosed from a mousy student with short, spiky brown hair into a glamorous, long-haired redhead and the face of gun rights in Russia, not to mention catnip for American men like U.S. Person 1.

The balding American lobbyist and Butina, now 30, embarked on a romantic relationship and a remarkable political influence campaign back in the U.S. It wasn’t long before the man who once burned Soviet flags in public was co-hosting Russian-themed parties dressed as Rasputin, in which guests drank vodka from bottles emblazoned with a hammer and sickle. In Republican social circuits, Butina was referred to as “that Russian girl.” What she really was, as she recently admitted, was a Kremlin secret agent who tried to infiltrate conservative U.S. political groups as Donald Trump rose to power.

Prosecutors contend that Erickson, whom one friend described to The Daily Beast as a “secret master of the political universe,” helped Butina make inroads into conservative leadership circles, an effort that furthered a Russian ploy to illegally funnel cash to the NRA to support the election of Donald Trump. Erickson, who sent an email to Trump campaign aide Rick Dearborn in May 2016 with the subject line “Kremlin Connection,” was also reportedly involved in an attempt to establish a secret back channel between Russian President Vladimir Putin and key Republicans, including candidate Trump.

Erickson remains an unindicted “target” for prosecutors, and his attorney claims he “has done nothing to harm our country and never would.” But there’s no question about his relationship with Butina, whom he regularly visited in her Virginia jail cell, and his involvement in many of her activities. If indicted, Erickson would be the first American in the Trump–Russia investigation to be charged under Section 951 of the U.S. Code, a statute that Justice Department lawyers describe as “espionage-lite” and that is generally reserved for those who act as an intelligence-gathering agents of a foreign government.

Could the same man who once produced a borderline anti-Soviet propaganda film in the 1980s get nailed as a secret Russian agent? When it comes to the ever-expanding saga that is the Trump-Russia investigation, sometimes the truth is stranger than fiction, even really bad fiction like Red Scorpion.

Read more from the Mueller Thread: On ‘“poppycock” and Trump’s coming war over executive privilege.

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