Maria Butina pleaded guilty in federal court Thursday to a conspiracy charge, under a provision of the legal code sometimes referred to as “espionage lite.” The “statement of facts” released with her plea describe Butina’s efforts to “establish unofficial lines of communication with Americans having power and influence over U.S. politics… for the benefit of the Russian Federation.” The document tracks closely with the facts Rolling Stone laid out in an April expose of Russian efforts to infiltrate the NRA and influence the Trump campaign.
According to the filing, Butina’s conspiracy was directed by a “Russian Official,” understood to be former Russian senator and central banker Alexander Torshin. “U.S. Person 1” — previously identified in court documents as the GOP operative Paul Erickson — is described as a co-conspirator in the plot “for Butina to act in the United States under the direction of Russian Official” — in violation of the federal ban against unauthorized foreign agents. “At least one other person” was also part of the plot.
The “Statement of Facts” reveals that the plot was written down, in part, in a March 2015 document titled Description of the Diplomacy Project. Butina wrote that she believed the candidate nominated by “Political Party #1” — i.e. the Republican party — would likely be elected president. According to the plea document, “Butina stated she had laid the groundwork for an unofficial channel of communication with the next U.S. administration” by gaining the confidence of “a certain U.S. civil society gun rights organization” — that is to say, the NRA — “which Butina posited had influence over Political Party #1.” (According to the plea document, Erickson assisted Butina in crafting the proposal, which Torshin later indicated “would be supported, at least in part.”)
The Statement of Facts underscores that Butina’s sway with the NRA was essential to her conspiracy. In April 2015, Butina traveled to the NRA’s annual convention, where she “highlighted her experience as a gun rights advocate in Russia to gain the attention of the Gun Rights organization and its members.” The plea document indicates she was “introduced to influential members of Political Party #1, one of whom announced his campaign to run for the presidency of the United States shortly thereafter.” (This appears to be a reference to Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, whom Butina blogged about meeting at the time.) While it is not mentioned specifically in the court filing, it’s now clear that Butina was acting as an unofficial Russian agent when she posed a question to candidate Trump in July 2015 that put him on record as opposing sanctions on Russia.
The filing indicates that Butina’s invitation of NRA members to Moscow in December 2015 was part of the illegal plot, and that “U.S. person 1 provided Butina with background information on the invitees.” Butina requested that Torshin arrange meetings between NRA members and “high-level Russian politicians” — which included deputy prime minister Dmitry Rogozin, who is subject to U.S. sanctions. The document quotes a message Butina sent afterward in Russian that suggests she was playing a long game. “We should let them express their gratitude now,” she wrote to Torshin of their NRA guests, adding: “we will put pressure on them quietly later.”
The seduction of NRA was only one track of the criminal Russian influence campaign. The plea document also describes Butina’s efforts to gain influence through the 2017 National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, D.C. According to the filing, Butina wanted a large Russian delegation to “establish a back channel of communication” at the event. Erickson, the document indicates, participated in this part of the conspiracy as well, emailing an unidentified individual with the promise that, “Reaction to the delegation’s presence in America will be relayed DIRECTLY to the Russian President and Foreign Minister.” (The federal focus on the prayer breakfast is suggestive. President Trump had been scheduled to meet with Torshin at this event, but cancelled at the last minute, according to Yahoo News.)
Throughout the plot, Butina was in frequent communication with Torshin, who both gave Butina direction and served as her sounding board. Torshin also ran their activities up the ranks of Putin’s government. The plea document states: “Butina was aware that Russian Official sometimes acted in consultation with MFA” — the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. For example, Butina was tasked by Torshin to craft a note, to be shared with the MFA, justifying Torshin’s visit to America to visit the 2016 NRA convention. “She did as he directed, encouraging his attendance partly because of the opportunity to meet political candidates,” according to the filing. After Trump’s election, the document states, Butina sought to create dialogue with “the then President-elect’s advisors,” but Torshin warned Butina he did not think the MFA would “go for it.”
Having pleaded guilty, Butina now faces a maximum of five years in prison, but court documents indicate she could also be deported to Russia. The 30-year-old has also pledged to “cooperate fully, truthfully, completely and forthrightly” on “any and all matters” the U.S. government deems relevant, including turning over any evidence of crimes.
This is trouble for Erickson, whom the government has now implicated in a criminal conspiracy to benefit the Russian Federation. Reached after Butina’s guilty plea, Erickson’s lawyer Bill Hurd said: “We stand by our previous statement. Paul Erickson is a good American. He has done nothing to harm our country and never would.” Rolling Stone has reached out the NRA, but the organization has not commented on the Butina scandal to date.
Although revealing, the filing makes clear this is not the final word on the Butina saga. The details it lays out are only those necessary “to establish that the defendant committed the offense to which she is pleading guilty,” the filing says, and “do not constitute all the facts known.”