Russian Spy Pleads Guilty To Conspiracy, Implicates American Boyfriend & NRA


As the story of Russian meddling in the 2016 elections continues to take shape, another new name has taken to the headlines this week. On Thursday, accused Russian spy Maria Butina formally pleaded guilty to conspiracy against the United States and agreed to wide ranging cooperation with authorities, implicating her American GOP operative boyfriend Paul Erickson and even the National Rifle Association in the process.

She and the recently retreated from public life Alexander Torshin worked to turn the NRA into what Erickson called a “conduit” for communication between the Kremlin and American political interests, particularly in the Republican Party. These efforts began before Donald Trump clenched the party’s presidential nomination with an early 2015 “Description of the Diplomacy Project.”

Throughout the following years until at least early 2017 — after Trump took office — Butina, Torshin, and Erickson worked on a plan to connect Russian leaders with American political figures. To that end, they sought to have then-candidate Donald Trump meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2016, but that never materialized. Butina did herself get to speak to Trump at one point, posing a question during a 2015 forum, but beyond that the group’s personal connections to Trump were limited.

They worked more in the shadows. In late 2015, for instance, she helped organize a trip NRA leaders took to Moscow, where they met with individuals including the long sanctioned Putin ally Dmitry Rogozin, who’s served as deputy prime minister of Russia with a purview including the nation’s defense industry. He’s a far right thought leader, who’s worked with Putin for over a decade and pushes ideas like Russia retaking Alaska as part of the restoration of their “empire.”

After that, Butina admitted to helping facilitate “friendship dinners” involving “wealthy and influential Americans” meant as forums to discuss the United States’ foreign policy towards Russia. In November 2016, she specifically sought to “create a dialogue” with the then-forming team of then-President elect Donald Trump.

On top of all of this and more, early the next year, Butina helped organize a delegation of prominent Russians to the National Prayer Breakfast, telling Erickson that they were coming to cultivate their secret communications with American political leaders.

There’s been reporting that Erickson is himself a target of the government’s criminal investigation into Butina’s activities, but this week, Erickson’s defense attorney William Hurd claimed that he wasn’t immediately certain how her cooperation could affect any inquiries into his client.

Butina’s sentencing hearing will be in February, and after an expected around five year prison sentence, she will likely be deported to Russia.

Her actions are hardly unique in the broader picture of the 2016 elections, despite the GOP’s repeated dismissal of the problem.

Special Counsel Robert Mueller has been slowly but surely revealing more of the scope of his team’s knowledge recently, including through catching former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen in the lie that efforts to put up a Trump Tower Moscow stopped in early 2016.

Cohen was sentenced to three years in prison just this week for crimes including lying to Congress.

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