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

The Post reports:

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, became the first Russian national convicted of seeking to influence U.S. policy in the run-up and through the 2016 election as a foreign agent, agreeing to cooperate in a plea deal with U.S. investigators in exchange for less prison time.

As part of her plea, Butina admitted “'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.” Torshin, according to previous reports, met briefly with Donald Trump Jr. at a National Rifle Association event in 2016. There is also evidence Donald Trump had an exchange with Butina at an event shortly after he announced he was running for president about the subject of sanctions:

“What is so significant about Butina is that she pulls the curtain back on Russia’s larger objectives,” says Max Bergmann of the Moscow Project. “Her influence efforts started before the Trump campaign existed and formed a distinct and separate line of effort. Her goal was to move the Republican Party away from its 70-year-plus history of being hawkish toward Russia. To do so, she built ties to one of the most powerful interest group on the right: the NRA.”

He continues, “So at the same time the Russians were backing Trump, they were also seeking to influence the NRA and the Republican Party with the stated goal of shifting U.S. policy.”

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He concludes, “This demonstrates that Russia launched a multifaceted political assault in the U.S., and support for Trump was only the biggest part of the assault.”

It will be fascinating to learn the extent of the Russians' relationship with the NRA, as well as other right-wing groups. (“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.”)

So many Russians. So many people on the Trump campaign (14 at last count) in contact with Russians. The Moscow Project has counted up more than 90 separate contacts between Trump team members and those linked to the Russian government. No other campaign of either major party has ever, to our knowledge, had a single contact with a hostile foreign power.

Republicans are trivializing Michael Cohen's crimes. Their cynicism is hurting the country. (Video: Joy Yi, Kate Woodsome, Danielle Kunitz/The Washington Post)

It’s odd that Trump wasn’t getting courted for possible “synergy” with an ally of the United States but rather with Russia. It’s likewise curious that Russia was seeking to penetrate the American right, not the left. (I don’t think the Sierra Club or the ACLU had a problem with Russian spies.) From what country did foreigners come who contacted Trump Jr. with dirt on Hillary Clinton? And which country had a cutout, WikiLeaks, dump Clinton’s emails? Russia. Russia. It was never Italy or China, for example. Always Russia.

It’s hard to describe how utterly unprecedented and creepy this phenomenon would have been to any candidate with a modicum of political experience or patriotic loyalty. At the first whiff of a contact, any other political campaign would have been on the phone to the FBI, not pursuing a real estate deal worth hundreds of millions and jumping at the chance to get a foreign power’s opposition material and encouraging a foreign power to leak more documents about its opponent.

The contacts were so improper, and the responses of the Trump camp doubly so, that it is impossible to see this as something other than a full-out offensive on multiple fronts (the NRA, the campaign itself, social media, live events) to get Trump elected.

It bears repeating that the public is aware of only a fraction of the material Robert S. Mueller III is gathering. Each time he files a document or obtains a plea, we learn more detail about more people engaged in more activities than were previously known. In the case of Butina, and the Russians more generally, do you really think we yet know the extent of the entanglements between Trump’s circle and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s? Me neither.

UPDATE: Former acting CIA director John McLaughlin explained the significance of the Butina plea. He told me, “The big picture takeaway is that Russia comes at the U.S. target with every option it can muster — full fledged spies operating under some kind of cover and seeking to recruit genuine secret agents; a corps of ‘Illegals’ like the ten expelled from the US in 20, kept in place for contingencies that develop; and someone like Butina who is best seen as ‘espionage lite,’ a person who hides in plain sight, makes no secret of her broad aim to improve Russia-US relations but conceals the role of official Russia in guiding and enabling much of her work.” He summed up, “Working in combination, these three techniques increase dramatically the possibility that Moscow will gain something - or someone — of intelligence value.”

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