Russian: Secret Agent for Kremlin 12/14 06:31
WASHINGTON (AP) -- A Russian gun-rights activist admitted Thursday that she
was a secret agent for the Kremlin who tried to infiltrate conservative U.S.
political groups as Donald Trump rose to power.
Maria Butina, 30, agreed to plead guilty to a conspiracy charge as part of a
deal with federal prosecutors.
"Guilty," Butina said in a slight accent when asked how she wanted to plead.
Dressed in a green jail uniform with her red hair pulled into a long ponytail,
Butina spoke softly and mostly kept her eyes on the judge.
The Butina case has provided a vivid glimpse into Russia's influence
operations in the United States at a time when the U.S. intelligence community
has determined that Russia was trying to help elect Trump by releasing emails
stolen from Democrats and conducting a social media campaign in an attempt to
sow political discord.
The case also lays bare how Russia tried to exploit one of the most
sensitive social issues in the U.S. --- gun control --- to gain access to the
Prosecutors say Butina and her Russian patron, Alexander Torshin, used their
contacts in the National Rifle Association to pursue back channels to American
conservatives during the 2016 campaign, when Trump, a Republican, defeated
Democrat Hillary Clinton.
Court documents detail how Butina saw the Republican Party as prime for
Russian influence and courted conservatives through networking and contacts
with the NRA. She posed for photos with prominent Republicans, including former
presidential candidates, and snagged a picture with Donald Trump Jr. at a 2016
As part of her deal, Butina pleaded guilty to a single charge of conspiracy
to act as an unregistered foreign agent and she agreed to cooperate with
The case is separate from special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation
into Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
Prosecutors say it is "very likely" Butina will be deported after her
sentence is completed. The charge carries a maximum sentence of five years in
prison, though the defense noted Thursday that federal sentencing guidelines
recommend no time to six months. She has been jailed since her arrest in July.
According to her plea agreement, Butina's work was directed by Torshin, a
former longtime member of the Russian parliament who until recently was an
official in Russia's central bank. He is now under sanction by the Treasury
Department for his ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Butina acknowledged she "sought to establish unofficial lines of
communication with Americans having power and influence over U.S. politics,"
according to the plea agreement. She admitted that her boyfriend, conservative
political operative Paul Erickson, helped her as she tried to use his ties with
the NRA to set up the back channels. Erickson, who is referred to as "U.S.
Person 1" in court papers, has not been charged. His attorney said he is a good
American who "has done nothing to harm our country and never would."
In a 2015 proposal she crafted with Erickson's help, Butina argued it was
unlikely Russia would be able to exert influence using official channels and,
as an alternative, suggested using back channel communications to build
relationships with Republicans, according to court papers.
Pushing her travel to the U.S. and her work with the NRA as selling points,
Butina argued that she had already "laid the groundwork for an unofficial
channel of communication with the next U.S. administration." She asked for
$125,000 from an unnamed Russian billionaire to attend conferences in the U.S.
and meet with people who she thought may have influence with the Republican
Party and sent the proposal to Torshin. He responded by telling her the
proposal would "be supported, at least in part," according to court documents.
Torshin also asked Butina to help justify him attending a national NRA
meeting in 2016 and Butina encouraged his attendance "partly because of the
opportunity to meet political candidates," according to her plea agreement. In
addition to attending numerous NRA events, Butina organized "friendship
dinners" in Washington with influential political figures.
In their filings, prosecutors have said federal agents found Butina had
contact information for people suspected of working for Russia's Federal
Security Services, or FSB, the successor intelligence agency to the KGB. Inside
her home, they found notes referring to a potential job offer from the FSB,
according to the documents.
A senior Russian lawmaker said he was convinced that Butina was pressured to
"They broke her down," Leonid Slutsky, chairman of the State Duma's foreign
affairs committee, told Russian news agencies. "Anyone would break down in
circumstances like that."
Butina's time in prison has included solitary confinement.
Butina's lawyer, Robert Driscoll, had previously decried the charges against
her as "overblown" and said Butina was a student interested in American
On Thursday, prosecutors also appeared to have backed off their assertion
that Butina's attendance at American University was little more than a cover to
enter the U.S. In their filing, prosecutors said "all available evidence"
indicated she had a genuine interest in a graduate school education.