In this courtroom sketch, Maria Butina, left, is shown next to her attorney Robert Driscoll, before U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan, during a court hearing at the U.S. District Court in Washington, Thursday, Dec. 13, 2018.

In this courtroom sketch, Maria Butina, left, is shown next to her attorney Robert Driscoll, before U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan, during a court hearing at the U.S. District Court in Washington, Thursday, Dec. 13, 2018. Dana Verkouteren via AP

Maria Butina's Guilty Plea Could Illuminate Russian Ploy to Shape 2016 Election

The onetime graduate student admits to being a foreign agent who sought to establish back channels to Republicans through the NRA.

The first Russian to be convicted of trying to infiltrate and influence American policy makers in the run-up to the 2016 election walked into a courtroom on Thursday with her head held high, gazing defiantly at the audience that had gathered to watch her plead guilty.

Wearing a green prison uniform over a billowy long-sleeved shirt with two large holes in each elbow, Maria Butina affirmed to a judge in the Washington, D.C., district court that between 2015 and 2018 she acted with another American, under the direction of a Russian official, as a foreign agent to “establish unofficial lines of communication” with influential politicians—back channels she sought to establish, primarily, by hobnobbing with Republicans at conventions hosted by the National Rifle Association.

Butina, who has agreed to cooperate with prosecutors, could shed light on yet another avenue through which Russia tried to influence American politics in 2016: namely, via an old-fashioned, on-the-ground operation, conducted not by experienced spies but by disarming political operatives. She could reveal whether there was any coordination between President Donald Trump’s campaign, Russia, and the NRA during the election. Butina is young—just 30 years old—but effective: In the short time she spent operating in Washington, D.C., she interacted with Trump, Donald Trump Jr., and a Trump-campaign adviser named J.D. Gordon. She also helped organize a Russian delegation to the 2017 National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, D.C. (which Trump attended), tasked with establishing “a back channel of communication” to the administration, according to prosecutors.

The nature of the federal investigation being carried out in Washington, D.C., which is separate from the ongoing special-counsel probe into Russia’s election interference and a potential conspiracy between President Trump’s campaign and Russia, is not entirely clear. At Thursday’s hearing, several key questions about her relationship with the Russian government and activities to influence powerful politicians were left unanswered. Was her alleged handler, the high-level Russian banker Alexander Torshin, acting on Russian President Vladimir Putin’s orders, or was he freelancing? Did she and Torshin use their connections to the NRA to funnel money from Russia to Trump’s campaign? And were there any Americans, aside from her Republican-operative boyfriend Paul Erickson, involved in the efforts to set up a so-called back channel to Russia?

It would be a striking coincidence if Butina’s efforts to make inroads with Republican policy makers during the election were completely divorced from the broader interference campaign under way by Moscow at precisely the same time. That is why Special Counsel Robert Mueller, who is investigating that interference, is “likely” to question Butina now that she has agreed to cooperate with the government, said Barbara McQuade, the former United States attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan.

“In particular, they would want to know about her asking Trump a question about sanctions at an event in 2015,” McQuade said, referring to Butina’s attendance at a public event in Las Vegas where she asked Trump from the audience what he thought about Russia and sanctions. “Was his calling on her as random as it appeared, or was it coordinated to give Trump an opportunity to start talking about Russian sanctions?” The Special Counsel’s Office did not return a request for comment about whether they would question Butina.

Russian nationals and Kremlin officials were eager to see lifted punishing sanctions imposed by Barack Obama’s administration in response to Russian corruption, human-rights abuses, and the annexation of Crimea. According to Mueller’s office, Trump’s former national-security adviser Michael Flynn promised the former Russian ambassador during the transition period that the Trump White House would revisit the sanctions policy.

One of the biggest unknowns is whether Butina has information that could incriminate the NRA, whose unprecedented, $30 million push to elect Trump is reportedly being examined by Mueller for evidence of illicit Russian involvement. The high-level Russian banker who allegedly served as Butina’s handler, Alexander Torshin, is an NRA “life member” who repeatedly asked the Trump campaign for meetings with the candidate—requests he made through Butina’s boyfriend, Paul Erickson. Erickson is of interest to federal prosecutors, who reportedly sent him a letter in September warning that they may charge him with acting as a secret foreign agent. Butina may be useful in that respect as well; she and Erickson met five years ago in Moscow and began dating shortly thereafter. They co-founded a limited-liability company in 2016 in South Dakota, whose business purpose is unknown.

“Putin is deadly serious about building a good relationship with Mr. Trump,” Erickson wrote to Trump campaign adviser Rick Dearborn in May 2016. “He wants to extend an invitation to Mr. Trump to visit him in the Kremlin before the election.” Erickson added that the Kremlin wanted to make “first contact” with Trump via Torshin at the May 2016 NRA convention in Louisville, Kentucky. The meeting never happened; Torshin ended up chatting with Donald Trump Jr., instead, at a private dinner on the sidelines of the convention.

The NRA was Butina’s initial “in” to American politics. As the founder of the first gun-rights advocacy group in Russia, where the government severely limits and discourages individual gun ownership, Butina’s enthusiasm for the Second Amendment was exciting, if not unusual. In 2015, just before the 2016 presidential race kicked off, Butina attended an NRA convention where she was introduced to “influential members” of the Republican party, according to prosecutors. She then invited “powerful members” of the NRA to Moscow in December 2015 “to advance her agenda,” prosecutors wrote. Erickson provided useful background about the members, and Torshin arranged for them to meet with “high-level Russian government officials,” according to the government. After they left, Butina told Torshin: “We should let them express their gratitude now, we will put pressure on them quietly later.”

In court on Thursday, Butina said she was pleading guilty because she was, in fact, guilty—not because she had been coerced or promised a lighter sentence. She is the eighth person to plead guilty in the investigations of Russia’s attempts to interfere in the 2016 election, many of which have spawned out of Mueller’s original probe. The president’s longtime personal lawyer Michael Cohen pleaded guilty and was sentenced to three years in prison on Wednesday for campaign finance violations, lying to Congress about a Trump Tower Moscow deal, and other financial crimes. Flynn, pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his conversations with the former Russian ambassador, and his set to be sentenced next week. They have both been cooperating in Mueller’s investigation.

Meanwhile, Trump has been lashing out at the Russia investigation more than ever, as his former associates enter into cooperation deals with the government. He has called Cohen a “weak person” who made up “stories” to get a “deal” with Mueller, and insisted on Thursday that he never told Cohen to break the law.

As for Butina, the Russian government has complained about her detention repeatedly since she was charged and taken into custody in July. Moscow has characterized her as a “political prisoner” who was “tortured” and pleaded guilty just “to survive.” “It's medieval inquisition,” Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova told CNN this week. “Because she is intimidated, she was tortured and was not treated like a human being, not like a woman. I think she was treated and is still treated probably as a terrorist or something like that.”

Butina’s lawyer said in court that he believes she is “doing well mentally,” and Butina appeared eager to plead guilty—asked at one point whether her mind was “clear,” Butina departed from her monosyllabic yes-no replies. “Absolutely,” she said.