- Maria Butina, who is accused of being a Russian agent, pleaded guilty on Thursday to engaging in a conspiracy against the US.
- Butina has long been suspected of working with a high-ranking Russian government official to infiltrate the National Rifle Association and influence US policy in favour of Russia.
- Prosecutors said that Butina, who was indicted earlier this year, and the Russian official worked to create a “back channel” between Russia and the US, using the NRA as a conduit.
- The NRA has been the subject of heightened scrutiny from congressional investigators since last year.
Maria Butina, who is accused of being a Russian agent, pleaded guilty on Thursday to engaging in a conspiracy against the United States.
Butina is accused of infiltrating the National Rifle Association and trying to sway US policy in favour of Russia.
A plea agreement submitted to the court Thursday said Butina would “cooperate fully, truthfully, completely and forthrightly with … any and all matters as to which the Government deems the cooperation relevant.”
It added that Butina’s cooperation could include answering questions, providing sworn written statements, taking government-administered polygraph tests, and participating in covert law-enforcement activities.
Butina was indicted in July on two counts related to conspiracy and acting as an agent of the Russian government. The indictment said Butina and a high-ranking Russian official, believed to be the Russian politician Alexander Torshin, worked to create a “back channel” between Russia and the US, using the NRA as a conduit.
“Butina sought to establish unofficial lines of communication with Americans having power and influence over US politics,” the plea agreement said.
Butina admitted to drafting a proposal in Russian in March 2015 called the “Description of the Diplomacy Project,” which implied that “Russia could use unofficial channels of communication” to build relationships with the Republican Party, denoted as “Political Party #1” in the document.
Indeed, Butina has long been cultivating ties with American gun-rights activists, like the Republican strategist Paul Erickson, with whom she has been acquainted since at least 2013. Prosecutors have accused Butina of pursuing a sexual relationship with Erickson to make inroads with the NRA.
Erickson appears to fit the description of an individual denoted as “US Person 1” in an affidavit submitted along with the criminal complaint against Butina in July. The plea agreement said this person helped Butina write her proposal.
The affidavit said Butina and US Person 1 worked together to arrange introductions to other Americans influential in US politics, “including an organisation promoting gun rights … for the purpose of advancing the agenda of the Russian Federation.”
Prosecutors said Butina told another person, listed in the affidavit as “US Person 2” and described as a US citizen who was included in a series of emails in 2016 and 2017, that the Russian official was “very much impressed by you” and that the “Russians will support the efforts from our side.”
The affidavit said that in another email, sent on October 4, 2016, US Person 1 told an acquaintance, “Unrelated to specific presidential campaigns, I’ve been involved in securing a VERY private line of communication between the Kremlin and key [GOP] leaders through, of all conduits, the [NRA].”
Butina’s plea agreement said that she told the Russian government she believed the Republican Party would win the 2016 election and that she had “laid the groundwork for an unofficial channel of communication with the next US administration.”
The NRA has been the subject of heightened scrutiny from congressional investigators since last year. McClatchy also reported in January that the FBI was investigating whether Russia attempted to use the NRA as a vessel to funnel Russian money into the 2016 campaign.
The NRA was a central topic of interest when Glenn Simpson, the cofounder of the opposition-research firm Fusion GPS, testified last year before the House Intelligence Committee.
At one point, Rep. Jackie Speier of California asked Simpson why Russia appeared so interested in the NRA.
“It appears the Russians, you know, infiltrated the NRA,” Simpson said. “And there is more than one explanation for why. But I would say, broadly speaking, it appears that the Russian operation was designed to infiltrate conservative organisations.”
Simpson added that Fusion had spent “a lot of time” investigating Torshin, who has been accused of money laundering, among other things.
“He is one of the more important figures, but, you know, another woman with whom he was working, Maria Butina, also was a big Trump fan in Russia, and then suddenly showed up here and started hanging around the Trump transition after the election,” Simpson said.
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