On Thursday in federal court in Washington, D.C., the jailed Russian national Maria Butina pleaded guilty to conspiring against the United States under the direction of a Russian official.
According to the feds, Butina’s partners in this conspiracy included the official (widely identified as the former Russian senator and central banker Alexander Torshin) and Person 1, known to be Butina’s boyfriend and longtime GOP operative Paul Erickson.
The “Statement of Offense” released by the court reads in part: “With U.S. Person 1’s assistance and subject to Russian Official’s direction, Butina sought to establish unofficial lines of communication with Americans having power and influence over U.S. politics. Butina sought to use those unofficial lines of communication for the benefit of the Russian Federation.”
Judge Tanya Chutkan found Butina competent to deliver her plea Thursday and warned her she could be deported after sentencing. Summarizing the charges against Butina, Judge Chutkan spoke of Butina leveraging her contacts with a gun rights organization in an attempt to influence “Political Party #1” — the GOP.
The guilty plea adds a criminal overlay to the years-long effort by Butina and Torshin to infiltrate the National Rifle Association, leveraging the gun group’s leadership and its annual conventions to gain influence with top Republicans and the Trump family. A Rolling Stone expose in April detailed the history and scope of the operation. Torshin has since been hit by sanctions and barred from entering the United States. Butina was arrested in July and has been jailed without bail since.
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Butina, 30, was raised in Siberia, where she grew up competing in shooting competitions. She studied political science and rose to national prominence in 2011 for her participation in the Youth Primaries of the Young Guard of United Russia, a political contest sponsored by Vladimir Putin’s political party. Butina soon moved to Moscow, where she founded a gun-rights organization, Right to Bear Arms, under the tutelage of Torshin, then a top senator in the Russian government.
At the time of their partnership, Torshin had already been cultivating connections with the leaders of the NRA. He touted Right to Bear Arms as Russia’s NRA-equivalent. Butina’s group hosted exchanges with American gun-rights leaders, including an infamous 2015 trip to Moscow in which NRA members met with foreign minister Sergei Lavrov and deputy prime minister for defense Dmitry Rogozin, who had been sanctioned by the U.S. government.
The deep ties between the NRA and Right to Bear Arms gave Torshin and Butina cover to mingle freely with top GOP leaders at NRA conventions. Butina snapped selfies pressing the flesh with then-NRA honcho Wayne LaPierre, former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-PA) and former Gov. Bobby Jindal (R-LA). Butina even succeed in getting John Bolton, now Trump’s national security adviser, to make a video presentation to her group.
Taking a suspicious interest in the GOP presidential primaries, Butina authored an op-ed for the National Interest in June 2015: “It may take the election of a Republican to the White House in 2016 to improve relations between the Russian Federation and the United States,” she wrote. Butina first took a shine to Gov. Scott Walker (R-WI), before zeroing in on Donald Trump. In July 2015, just weeks into his campaign, she put a question to Trump at a forum in Las Vegas. The future president put himself on record opposing sanctions against Russia. “I don’t think you’d need the sanctions,” Trump told Butina.
As Butina deepened her American connections, she also forged a romantic relationship with longtime GOP and NRA operative Paul Erickson. Working through Erickson, Torshin and Butina attempted to open a back-channel communication between the Kremlin and the Trump campaign. Torshin and Butina ultimately met with Donald Trump, Jr., at a dinner connected to the 2016 NRA convention. Until her arrest, Butina remained in the U.S. on a student visa, working on graduate studies at American University and socializing with middle-aged Republicans, including then Trump-campaign national-security adviser J.D. Gordon, who reportedly invited her to a Styx concert.
Butina’s guilty plea comes with a pledge to cooperate fully with ongoing criminal investigations. That is a danger, foremost, to Erickson, whom prosecutors earlier alleged “has aided the defendant’s charged criminal activity for years,” including playing “an integral role” in Butina’s efforts “to establish an informal line of communication between the Kremlin and the incoming Presidential Administration, knowing that she was acting at the direction of the Russian Official.” In Erickson’s residence, the feds found a handwritten note on a document titled “Maria’s Patriots in Waiting Organization” that read: “Respond to FSB offer of employment?” — an apparent reference to the Russian intelligence service.
Erickson has reportedly received a “target letter” from the government that is often a precursor to an indictment. Erickson’s lawyer William Hurd tells Rolling Stone, “Paul Erickson is a good American. He has never done anything to hurt his country and never would.”
Putin himself disavowed knowledge of Butina or her activities this week, saying that when she was arrested, “I asked all the heads of our intelligence services what is going on. Nobody knows anything about her.”
But his government has taken a keen interest in her case. As federal prosecutors recounted in September: “The Russian government has conducted six consular visits with the defendant. It also has passed four diplomatic notes to the U.S. Department of State… Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has spoken to the U.S. Secretary of State twice to complain about this prosecution. The official Kremlin Twitter account changed its avatar to the defendant’s face and started a #FreeMariaButina hashtag….. Russia has issued more diplomatic notes on the defendant’s behalf in the past month than for any other Russian citizen imprisoned in the United States in the past year. Put simply, the Russian government has given this case much more attention than other cases.”
#Zakharova: We demand that Washington observe legal rights of Maria Butina & release her as soon as possible. @RusEmbUSA provides the detained Russian citizen with all assistance & support needed | #FreeMariaButina pic.twitter.com/n46OSwI10V
— MFA Russia 🇷🇺 (@mfa_russia) December 13, 2018
This is a developing story and will be updated.