Maria Butina, the Russian-born student accused of infiltrating the National Rifle Association and other conservative groups in order to advance Moscow’s foreign-policy interests, pled guilty Thursday to one count of conspiracy.
Butina, who had maintained her innocence since she was arrested in July, requested a change-of-plea hearing earlier this week after deciding to cooperate with federal prosecutors. The former American University student could face up to five years in prison for conspiring to violate the federal law governing the activity of foreign agents operating in the U.S. The guilty plea she entered Thursday establishes that she coordinated with an unnamed American at the direction of a Russian official in order “to establish unofficial lines of communication with Americans having power and influence over U.S. politics . . . for the benefit of the Russian Federation.”
Law-enforcement officials have identified the “unnamed American” as Paul Erickson, a veteran Republican operative with whom Butina carried on a romantic relationship. The description of the Russian official included in the plea agreement matches Alexander Torshin, the deputy director of the Russian central bank, who attempted to broker a meeting between then-candidate Trump and Vladimir Putin in 2016.
A native of Siberia who founded a gun-rights organization in Russia, Butina used her activist credentials to access high-ranking NRA officials, including a number of the organization’s past presidents, during her time attending graduate school on American University’s Washington, D.C. campus.
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 its 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.