Maria Butina, a Russian national and former American University student accused of acting as a Kremlin spy in the U.S., reached a plea deal with prosecutors Monday months after initially pleading not guilty to illegally acting as a foreign agent.
Butina, who stands accused of infiltrating Republican political circles to advance Russian interests during the 2016 presidential campaign, had maintained her innocence from the time she was arrested in July until her attorneys filed a request for a “change of plea” hearing that could happen as soon as Tuesday.
The 30-year-old Russian national moved to the U.S. to pursue a graduate degree after founding a gun-rights organization in Russia. Her history as a gun-rights activist allowed her to make inroads with top NRA officials and other prominent conservative activists.
While her defense attorneys have maintained that those contacts amounted to nothing more than professional networking, federal prosecutors have argued that she was working to further Russian foreign-policy goals at the direction of Alexander Torshin, the deputy director of the Russian central bank.
It remains unclear exactly how Butina’s efforts fit into the broader Kremlin operation to help elect Trump over Democrat Hillary Clinton in 2016, but it appears she was keen to help overturn existing economic sanctions against Russia. At a public town-hall event in Las Vegas in 2015, Butina had the opportunity to question Trump directly regarding his thoughts on the sanctions imposed against Russia in 2014 to punish their annexation of Crimea from Ukraine.
“We get along with Putin,” Trump told Butina. “I don’t think you’d need the sanctions.”
Butina also tried unsuccessfully to broker a meeting between then-candidate Trump and Torshin at an NRA convention in May 2016. Torshin and Butina met briefly with Donald Trump Jr. at the event, according to documents provided to Congress.