“July 2015: That is when the Russian investigation started, not July 2016. That is the big coverup.”
Editor’s note: There is an updated version of this post available here.
Not long ago, I had an email exchange with Patrick Byrne, the CEO of Overstock.com, about his relationship with Maria Butina, the Russian gun-rights activist who was sentenced to prison after she tried to set up a backchannel between the Trump camapign and the Kremlin.
Byrne told me three high-ranking officials (whom he calls “X,Y, and Z”) in the Obama administration directed him to “resume a romantic relationship” with Butina. He says the Russia investigation started when he contacted the FBI (which he refers to as the “Men in Black”) about Butina in July 2015. Byrne says he has a “non-standard relationship” with the FBI.
I have concerns about Byrne’s credibility, as I noted in a previous post, and I’ve tried, with limited success, to verify his claims. What I’ve been able to confirm is that Byrne and Butina did meet in July 2015. Butina’s attorney, Robert Driscoll, has confirmed that they did have a romantic relationship. Driscoll also says the government “flatly denied” his speculation that Byrne was a government informant.
The Justice Department declined my request for comment, although, interestingly, my email was routed to Peter Carr, former spokesman for Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s office. Carr is now with the Office of Professional Responsibility, which will be handling any investigation into Byrne’s claims.
So there things stood until this week, when Byrne’s story took on a life of its own. Overstock issued a press release in which Byrne announced, “I am the notorious ‘missing Chapter 1’ of the Russian investigation.” (The company’s stock fell more than 30 percent on the news.) On Thursday, The New York Times followed up with a story on Byrne’s claims.
I believe people need to hear what Byrne told me, so here goes:
Q. You met Maria Butina at Freedom Fest in July 2015.
Q. You began dating shortly thereafter.
A. No. We had an intellectual discussion for 90 minutes. She knew all about me already.
She told me there was a circle in Russia of about 150 liberals, from across the Russian power structure, including the oligarchs. They watched my videos on liberalism. They know about my relationship with Milton Friedman. They discuss things I say and write.
They had sent her with a message for me to come to Moscow to speak on Bitcoin, then go to the Altai Mountains to a resort that would be shut down for three days so I could meet with 40-45 people from across the Russian power structure — government, oligarchs — to discuss liberalism, John Stuart Mill, Hayek, etc.
We parted after meeting that day in Vegas, her stipulating that we would text to make future arrangements and that she would be texting me under the guise of us having a romantic relationship.
I reported that night to my clearance authority (where I once kept a low level clearance due to some minor advisory work I do in foreign policy).
I gave a description of the situation and wanted to know:
- May I introduce her to some senior thinkers in the foreign policy establishment (My hope was to Yenta her in to talking to some senior thinkers in the foreign policy establishment whom I know through the Council on Foreign Relations. I thought she would be interesting for someone to spend an afternoon talking to, and perhaps her dreams of a back channel for peace might ring a bell with someone.)
- Is it OK if I travel to Russia on her invitation?
- Or should I cut her out of my life as being a security risk?
I learned later that my report “sent up a flare over Washington” that very night. July 2015: That is when the Russian investigation started, not July 2016. That is the big coverup.
I got contacted by Men In Black (I do not like using the acronym “FBI”). They were unclear, but seemed to suggest that I should learn more then they would decide, but were not sure. It went back and forth for two weeks.
Meanwhile, Maria was writing me, asking me to Moscow, then Montenegro, then Rome, Paris, etc. Watching my YouTube videos on liberalism. Pretending to be in love.
Finally, in September, I sent word to the U.S. government that I was not going to meet Maria again (lest I get in some hassle with the U.S. government) unless I was given the word “Greenlight.” They sent: “Greenlight.”
So I went to meet her for the second time in September 2015 at hotel room in New York City with the idea that we would spend a few days talking, getting to know each other, a possible trip to Russia and the purposes thereof. It was a two-bedroom suite. She arrived first. When I arrived, she made clear immediately (as in, less than three seconds) that she had not been pretending and wanted to make it romantic. I was putty in her hands.
Q. You had done some work for the FBI in the past?
A. I helped the Men in Black twice before.
[Note: Byrne forwarded two links to me. One is a Sports Illustrated story that discusses Byrne’s friendship with ex-NBA player Bison Dele, who disappeared while sailing in the South Pacific in 2002. The other is a link to his talk about naked short selling and corruption on Wall Street, Deepcapturethemovie.com]
Q. What happened next with you and Butina?
A. I saw her sporadically (every 4-6 weeks?) from September 2015 through March 2016. Initially my estimation was:
- 66% chance this is an opportunity of some kind. Maybe just getting a chance to preach the gospel of Liberalism and freedom in Russia. Maybe some good contacts. Maybe push the peace ball a couple of yards down the field.
- 33% chance this is a risk
The Men In Black’s lack of responsiveness or concern was odd.
As the September 2015-March 2016 wore on, my estimation changed. Maria was spending less time talking about John Locke and John Stuart Mill, more time talking about the political circles in which she was swanking around.
She let me know [Alexander] Torshin, had told her to focus on Hillary, Rubio, Cruz, and Trump. Whichever of the four won, she was to have a contact in their administration.
[Note: Torshin was the deputy governor of the Central Bank of Russia who prosecutors say was directing Butina’s activities in the United States]
This kind of talk was especially concerning. So the Men in Black’s lack of apparent interest or concern was frustrating to me.
Around February, she asked me to fly to Russia, give a talk in St. Petersburg on Liberalism and Bitcoin, then spend an hour with Putin (who would be in town). The Men in Black studied, came back, said it was too dangerous, don’t go, break up with Maria. So I did. (I was also stage four of two things at once at the time, and they were on the brink of starting to yank out organs, so I was not going to argue.)
The Men in Black then had me get involved with a corruption case involving a federal official. That ran a couple of months. Something deeply unusual and troubling came out of that experience that led me to wonder if I was involved in law enforcement or political espionage.
On July 1, 2016, they came back and said, “What a mistake we made. Russia, Russia, Russia. We want you to know that the U.S. government never asks something like this but we are here to ask you to rekindle a romantic relationship with Maria. The orders are coming from X, Y, and Z.”
[Byrne declined to name these officials.]
“The USA never, ever does this, but these circumstances are so extraordinary, that you are being asked to do this. We want to remind you that you can refuse.”
And the agents were clearly extremely discomfitted and unhappy about the whole thing. But the request came from X, Y, and Z.
I decided that I had gotten sucked into what was starting to seem a lot more like political espionage than law enforcement. I knew this was all going to end up in front of a jury, or in television, or in the history books, and I did not want to disgrace our country or Maria by carrying out those orders. I would have if I had thought them legitimate. I’ve done lots of stranger things for our country, but this smelled like skunk, so I decided to do two things instead:
- Lie to the feds. I would wine and dine and romance Maria, and give the public perception that we were once again romantically involved. I would blow her away with being this unbelievably romantic gentleman to her. I would report that I was back in the saddle, but all the while 100% NEVER TOUCH HER. I knew I had to be 100% pure on that bright line, so when the day came that it was all unearthed (which I knew would happen), the record would show that actually I had not laid a finger on her. (I understand that she and her lawyer have confirmed to other journalists that I was a total gentleman to her).
- Set up X,Y, Z for felony charges down the road
Q. You conveyed all of this to the Justice Department, including the name of the three higher-ups in the Obama administration in April 2019?
A. Yes on April 30 I told them all of this, including that the U.S. government had know all about Maria in July 2015 from me, and had known about each of her subsequent meetings (e.g. Don Jr.) before she had them, and had let them all occur.
[Note: On May 20, 2016, Butina and Torshin attended the National Rifle Association convention in Louisville, Kentucky and shared a table with Donald Trump Jr. at a private dinner.]
I learned that Maria was transferred 9 days later from a SHU unit [solitary confinement] in a prison in Virginia to the nicest women’s camp in the federal system. So I give great compliments to the DOJ. Nothing happens in 9 days normally. But I think they heard my story, checked out some of the basic claims, and moved her out of isolation by the end of the following week (May 9). The following Wednesday they announced John Durham.
[Note: John H. Durham, the U.S. attorney for the District of Connecticut, is investingating the origins of the special counsel’s probe into Russian interference in the 2016 election. News broke about his investigation on May 13. The Washington Post reported that the investigation had been picked “in recent weeks.”]
Q. It’s a fascinating story, but I need to report it out. Is there someone who can corroborate this?
Sara Carter has had some recent confirmation from the Department of Justice. I don’t know what your connections are like there, but that’s why you get paid the big bucks! I’m not in the convincing business. I am simply in the business or letting the world know what happend.
I watched this unfold for the last year knowing I had a lot of the answers, and in late June decided (and was advised by my rabbi) that I had a moral duty to come forward. So I have. It is proving interesting to see how long it takes the world to get it.
[Note: Byrne’s “rabbi” is Warren Buffett. Byrne’s father, John, was the CEO GEICO, one of Buffett’s companies, and Patrick has known Buffett for years.)
Ok, Seth, I have qualms. From what you have written so far, I fear that when you learn the full truth you will seek to distort it because it conflicts with some things you have written so far. On the other hand, I have it on good authority that you are a legitimate, honest reporter. I have given you a ton. I have a mountain more. Let us see how you represent what I have told you before going any further.