WASHINGTON — A Russian gun rights activist pleaded guilty Thursday to conspiring with a senior Russian official to infiltrate the conservative movement in the United States as an agent for the Kremlin from 2015 until her arrest in July 2017.
Maria Butina, 30, became the first Russian national convicted of seeking to influence U.S. policy in the run-up and through the 2016 election as a foreign agent, agreeing to cooperate in a plea deal with U.S. investigators in exchange for less prison time.
Butina admitted to working with an American political operative and under the direction of a former Russian senator and deputy governor of Russia's central bank to forge bonds with officials at the National Rifle Association, conservative leaders, and 2016 U.S. presidential candidates, including Donald Trump, whose rise to the Oval Office she presciently predicted to her Russian contact.
"Guilty," Butina said with a light accent in entering her plea with U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan at a hearing Thursday morning in federal court in Washington.
As part of her plea, Butina admitted seeking to establish and use "unofficial lines of communication with Americans having influence over U.S. politics" for the benefit of the Russian government, through a person fitting the description of sanctioned Russian central banker Alexander Torshin, prosecutor Erik Kenerson said.
The court did not set a sentencing date pending Butina's ongoing cooperation with prosecutors but set another hearing for Feb. 12 on the status of her case.
Butina is expected to provide evidence against a Republican Party consultant with whom she had a romantic relationship and worked closely with after they met while he visited Moscow in 2013. The operative, previously named as Paul Erickson, is a longtime GOP political adviser from South Dakota who managed the 1992 presidential campaign of Pat Buchanan.
In a statement Wednesday, Erickson's lawyer, William Hurd, said, "Paul Erickson is a good American. He has never done anything to hurt our country and never would."
In plea documents read by prosecutors in court Thursday, Butina admittedto undertaking a multiyear influence campaign coordinated through Torshin, a top Russian official, that she proposed in March 2015 as multiyear "Diplomacy Project."
Requesting $125,000 from a Russian billionaire and citing the NRA's influence on the Republican Party, Butina traveled to conferences to socialize with GOP presidential candidates, host "friendship dinners" with wealthy Americans, bond with NRA leaders and organize a Russian delegation to the influential National Prayer Breakfast in Washington.
Butina's efforts, which continued after she moved to Washington as a graduate student at American University in 2016, included asking whether the Russian government was ready to meet her contacts.
Butina's initiative came during what the U.S. intelligence community has said was a concerted Russian government effort to help elect Trump, including by hacking and distributing emails stolen from Democrats. Although special counsel Robert Mueller is investigating links between that effort and individuals in Trump's campaign, Butina was prosecuted by the U.S. attorney's office in Washington.
Butina crossed paths with Trump in July 2015, when she asked the newly declared Republican candidate about Russia and sanctions at a public event in Las Vegas. "We get along with Putin," Trump told Butina, referring to the Russian president. "I don't think you'd need the sanctions."
Erickson also tried to get Trump to meet Torshin when both attended the NRA's convention in May 2016, referring to Torshin as "Putin's emissary" in an email to a campaign official. The campaign declined a meeting, but documents provided to Congress show Butina and Torshin met briefly during the event with Donald Trump Jr., one of the president's sons.
In plea papers, prosecutors agreed to drop a second count against Butina of violating a law that requires foreigners working for their government to register with the U.S. Justice Department. There is no suggestion in the documents that Butina was employed by the Russian intelligence services, but violations of the law are considered more serious than a separate law that requires registration by paid lobbyists for foreign entities.
Under her deal, Butina agreed to cooperate "completely and forthrightly" with American law enforcement about "any and all" matters deemed relevant by the U.S. government, including participating in interviews and debriefings outside the presence of her lawyers, testifying and providing sworn, written statements.
Butina faces a possible maximum prison sentence of five years followed by deportation. Under the deal, her defense agreed that she could face a recommended zero to six months in prison under federal guidelines, and could seek a lower sentence. Prosecutors did not agree on any guidelines range, but agreed to request leniency if she provides "substantial assistance."
Butina, who has been jailed since her arrest in July, agreed to remain behind bars pending sentencing.
Before the plea, the Russian foreign ministry continued to support Butina, planning to send embassy personnel to her hearing and posting a statement on Twitter by spokeswoman Maria Zakharov, saying, "We demand that Washington observe legal rights of Maria Butina & release her as soon as possible."
On Tuesday Russian President Vladimir Putin addressed Butina's case at a meeting of a Kremlin council on human rights in Moscow, saying: "I asked all the heads of our intelligence services what is happening, 'Who is she?' No one knows a thing about her."
In the "Diplomacy Project," Butina suggested using unofficial channels to influence U.S. foreign policy.
Butina had served as an interpreter for Torshin, an NRA member, as he attended its annual conventions, and her profile as a self-made gun activist in Putin's restrictive Russia charmed American associates.
Butina and Torshin invited NRA leaders to Moscow in December 2015, a delegation that included David Keene, a former NRA president and past head of the powerful American Conservative Union. Documents reviewed previously by The Washington Post show the group met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
After the meeting ended, Butina sent Torshin a message: "We should let them express their gratitude now, we will put pressure on them quietly later."