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Russian Maria Butina pleads guilty in case to forge Kremlin bond with U.S. conservatives

Russian gun rights activist Maria Butina developed bonds with conservative leaders during the 2016 campaign - culminating in outreach to then-candidate Trump. (Video: Bastien Inzaurralde, Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post)

A Russian gun rights activist pleaded guilty Thursday to conspiring with a senior Russian official to infiltrate the conservative movement in the United States as an agent for the Kremlin from 2015 until her arrest in July.

Maria Butina, 30, is the first Russian national convicted of seeking to influence U.S. policy in the run-up to the 2016 election by acting as a foreign agent. She agreed to cooperate in a plea deal with U.S. investigators in exchange for less prison time.

Butina admitted to working with an American political operative under the direction of a former Russian senator — now the deputy governor of Russia’s central bank — to forge connections with officials at the National Rifle Association, conservative leaders and candidates in the 2016 U.S. presidential race, including Donald Trump, whose rise to the White House she presciently predicted to her Russian contact.

Maria Butina pleaded guilty to conspiring with a Russian official to forge bonds with NRA officials, conservative leaders and 2016 presidential candidates. (Video: Reuters)

“Guilty,” Butina said with a light accent in entering her plea with U.S. District Judge Tanya S. Chutkan on Thursday in federal court in Washington.

As part of her plea, Butina admitted seeking to establish and use “unofficial lines of communication with Americans having influence over U.S. politics” for the benefit of the Russian government, through a person fitting the description of sanctioned Russian central banker Alexander Torshin, prosecutor Erik Kenerson said.

Butina’s case is a vivid “part of a larger mosaic of Russian influence operations” laid out in part by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation of Russian interference, said David Laufman, a former Justice Department official who headed the National Security Division’s Counterintelligence and Export Control Section until earlier this year.

“This case shines important light on the nature and aggressiveness of Russian influence operations targeting the United States, a threat that we need an unequivocal U.S. government commitment to counter, including the president of the United States, and both houses of Congress,” he said.

In plea documents read by prosecutors in court Thursday, Butina admitted undertaking a multiyear influence campaign coordinated through Torshin, a top Russian official, which she proposed in March 2015 as the “Diplomacy Project.”

Read the statement of offenses to which Maria Butina pleaded

Requesting $125,000 from a Russian billionaire and citing the NRA’s influence on the Republican Party, Butina traveled to conferences to socialize with GOP presidential candidates, host “friendship dinners” with wealthy Americans, bond with NRA leaders and organize a Russian delegation to the influential National Prayer Breakfast in Washington.

Kenerson said at the dinners, “Butina was able to meet individuals with political capital, to learn their thoughts and inclinations toward Russia, gauge their responses to her and adjust her pitch accordingly.”

Butina’s efforts, which continued after she moved to Washington as a graduate student at American University in 2016, included asking whether the Russian government was ready to meet her contacts.

The Butina plea agreement

Court documents indicate Butina worked closely in her efforts to advance Russia’s interests with a Republican Party consultant, with whom she had a romantic relationship after they met when he visited Moscow in 2013.

The operative, previously named as Paul Erickson, is a longtime GOP political adviser from South Dakota who managed the 1992 presidential campaign of Pat Buchanan.

In a statement Wednesday, Erickson’s lawyer, William Hurd, said, “Paul Erickson is a good American. He has never done anything to hurt our country and never would.”

Guns and religion: How American conservatives grew closer to Putin’s Russia

Butina’s initiative came during what the U.S. intelligence community has said was a concerted Russian government effort to help elect Trump, including by hacking and distributing emails stolen from Democrats. Although Mueller is investigating links between that effort and individuals in Trump’s campaign, Butina was prosecuted by the U.S. attorney’s office in Washington.

Butina crossed paths with Trump in July 2015, when she asked the newly declared Republican candidate about Russia and sanctions at a public event in Las Vegas. “We get along with Putin,” Trump told Butina, referring to the Russian president. “I don’t think you’d need the sanctions.”

Trump associate socialized with alleged Russian agent Maria Butina in final weeks of 2016 campaign

Erickson also tried to get Trump to meet Torshin when both attended the NRA’s convention in May 2016, referring to Torshin as “Putin’s emissary” in an email to a campaign official. The campaign declined a meeting, but documents provided to Congress show Butina and Torshin met briefly during the event with Donald Trump Jr., one of the president’s sons.

In plea papers, prosecutors agreed to drop a second count against Butina of violating a law that requires foreigners working for their government to register with the U.S. Justice Department. There is no suggestion in the documents that Butina was employed by the Russian intelligence services, but violations of the law are considered more serious than a separate law that requires registration by paid lobbyists for foreign entities.

Under her plea deal, Butina agreed to cooperate “completely and forthrightly” with American law enforcement.

Butina faces a possible maximum prison sentence of five years followed by deportation. Under the deal, her defense agreed that she could face a recommended zero to six months in prison under federal guidelines, and could seek a lower sentence. Prosecutors did not agree on any guidelines range, but agreed to request leniency if she provides “substantial assistance.”

Butina, who has been jailed since her arrest in July, agreed to remain behind bars while awaiting her sentencing date, which has not been set pending her ongoing cooperation. She appeared thinner in court Thursday than in appearances last summer, wearing a green jail jumpsuit with holes in the elbows of a white thermal undershirt, with her red hair braided.

Before the plea, the Russian Foreign Ministry continued to support Butina, planning to send embassy personnel to her hearing and posting a statement on Twitter by spokeswoman Maria Zakharova, saying, “We demand that Washington observe legal rights of Maria Butina & release her as soon as possible.”

In the “Diplomacy Project,” Butina suggested using unofficial channels to influence U.S. foreign policy.

‘She was like a novelty’: How alleged Russian agent Maria Butina gained access to elite conservative circles

Butina and Torshin invited NRA leaders to Moscow in December 2015, a delegation that included David Keene, a former NRA president and past head of the powerful American Conservative Union. Documents reviewed previously by The Washington Post show the group met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

After the meeting ended, Butina sent Torshin a message in Russian that Kenerson said could be rendered: “We should let them express their gratitude now, and put pressure on them quietly later.”

Butina told Torshin that she predicted a Republican presidential victory, and with her contacts and the NRA’s influence, she said, “she had laid the groundwork for an unofficial channel of communication with the next U.S. administration.”

Rosalind S. Helderman and Tom Hamburger contributed to this report.