On Thursday, Dec. 13, a former American University student and Russian national now infamous for courting America's powerful gun lobby pleaded guilty in federal court. 30-year-old Maria Butina was indicted in July and accused of attempting to sway the 2016 presidential election by infiltrating the National Rifle Association (NRA) and prominent Republican political circles with ties to Donald Trump. And what's in the Maria Butina guilty plea reveals a lot about what the public — and prosecutors — now know about the ties to the Trump campaign and Russia.
"Mariia Butina, also known as Maria Butina, 30, pled guilty today in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia to a charge of conspiracy to act as an agent of a foreign government," a spokesperson for the D.C. U.S. Attorney's Office told Elite Daily via email Thursday. While no sentencing date has been set at this time, there is a status hearing scheduled for Feb. 12. The department declined to comment on the case as it's still pending. Butina has been held in custody since her indictment in July.
Thursday's guilty plea, breaking with Butina's initial not-guilty stance, reveals that Butina was acting on behalf of Russia "to establish unofficial lines of communication with Americans having power" and did so "for the benefit of the Russian Federation," acting with aid and direction from two unnamed co-conspirators.
The plea describes Butina's work with others to devise a "Diplomacy Project" to facilitate relations between the two countries, as well as hosting a series of "friendship dinners" and attending NRA conventions and National Prayer Breakfasts in furthering those connections. These admissions, if accurate, paint a damning picture of the dynamics between Russia and the gun lobby, which gave over $30 million to Trump's 2016 campaign, some of which came from Russian donors. Elite Daily reached out to the NRA for comment but did not receive a response at time of publication.
Per the agreement, Butina must cooperate fully and completely — including giving over any knowledge of crimes she's aware of and sitting for interviews in various investigations with federal prosecutors. And given the high level of people she was in cahoots with, it doesn't bode well for them, either.
The first unnamed co-conspirator implicated, "US Person 1," is believed to be GOP operative and Butina's romantic partner Paul Erickson. In a statement to Elite Daily, William Hurd, a representative for Erickson, called him a "good American" and added, "He has never done anything to hurt our country and never would."
The second, "Russian Official," CNN reports, is Aleksandr Torshin, the former head of Russia Central Bank who allegedly directed Butina's involvement, working with her since the early 2010s to establish links to the NRA. Elite Daily attempted to reach representatives of Torshin for comment, but did not immediately hear back.
Aside from Torshin, the plea hearing on Thursday looks particularly bad for Erickson, who'd been warned in November that he should lawyer up (which, Mariotti explains, indicates that prosecutors want him to cooperate).
"What shocks me most is that Erickson helped write this proposal!" wrote Mariotti in his thread. "His behavior amounts to what most Americans would regard as outright treason."
As for the NRA, importantly, Butina's cooperation with federal prosecutors could mean she reveals information, if she has any, on the donations to and from the advocacy group.
Perhaps most notably, though, the plea agreement also states that Butina had direct contact with "Political Party #1," and with Trump specifically. In fact, in a 2015 town hall campaign event, Butina asked the then-candidate to describe his position on Russian sanctions. Elite Daily reached out to the White House for comment on Trump's knowledge of Butina but did not hear a response at time of publication.
Butina could face up to five years in prison, after which time she'd likely be deported to Russia, per The New York Times, though it's possible that with her ongoing cooperation, the judge in February could be lenient and limit her sentence. In the meantime, she's potentially got a lot she can share with prosecutors that may have impacts on the various parallel investigations moving forward.