Maria Butina, the 30-year-old Russian woman accused of exerting “covert influence” while in the U.S., will plead guilty to conspiracy in a deal with prosecutors, according to ABC. As part of her plea deal, Butina will cooperate with federal, state and local authorities in ongoing investigations.
[Butina] admits, as part of the deal, according to a copy obtained by ABC News that is expected to be filed to the court, that she and an unnamed “U.S. Person 1,” which sources have identified as longtime Republican operative Paul Erickson, with whom she had a multiyear romantic relationship, “agreed and conspired, with a Russian government official (“Russian Official”) and at least one other person, for Butina to act in the United States under the direction of Russian Official without prior notification to the Attorney General.”
Based on the description, the “Russian Official” appears to be Alexander Torshin, deputy governor of the Russian Central Bank and a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Under his direction, the agreement said, she “sought to establish unofficial lines of communication with Americans having power and influence over U.S. politics.”
The deal could carry a penalty of up to five years in prison, but it’s expected that Butina’s cooperation will earn her a lesser sentence. After that, she’ll most likely be deported to Russia.
Erickson is reportedly the target of an investigation with which Butina could be expected to cooperate.
According to the plea deal, Butina contacted Russian officials in 2015 with a proposal, entitled “Description of the Diplomacy Project.” In that proposal, she wrote that she had already “laid the groundwork for an unofficial channel of communication with the next U.S. administration” and asked for $125,000 to fund further development of relationships. At least one Russian official agreed to partially support her plan.
Butina’s strategy for influencing U.S. politics involved getting close to influential members of the NRA and of the National Prayer Breakfast, which brought her into political circles that included Donald Trump.
These efforts were fairly successful, according to ABC.
Most notably, Butina’s Russian gun rights group “Right to Bear Arms” hosted a delegation of former NRA presidents, board members and major donors in Moscow in 2015, where she appears to have succeeded in arranging a meeting between NRA insiders and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, raising the prospect of a discussion between conservative political operatives and a powerful member of Russian President Putin’s inner circle in the midst of a presidential campaign.
Erickson helped Butina in these relationships, he wrote in a 2016 email obtained by the FBI.
“Unrelated to specific presidential campaigns,” Erickson wrote, “I’ve been involved in securing a VERY private line of communication between the Kremlin and key [unnamed political party] leaders through, of all conduits, the [unnamed gun-rights organization].”
Erickson also supported Butina financially while she was working as a graduate student, and even helped her with her school work. Investigators now say her grad school identity was just a cover for her real influencing work.
Prosecutors say that Butina “appear[ed] to treat [her relationship with Erickson] as simply a necessary aspect of her activities” and privately expressed “disdain” for continuing to live with him.
Butina’s lawyer Robert Driscoll disagrees.
“I think in some ways it’s a classic love story,” Driscoll said previously. “I think [reporters] are filling in a lot of the gaps with a lot of spy novels.”