ABC News was first to report that Maria Butina, accused Russian agent, reaches plea deal with prosecutors that includes cooperation.
She admits, as part of the deal, according to a copy obtained by ABC News that is expected to be filed to the court, that she and an unnamed “U.S. Person 1,” which sources have identified as longtime Republican operative Paul Erickson, with whom she had a multiyear romantic relationship, “agreed and conspired, with a Russian government official (“Russian Official”) and at least one other person, for Butina to act in the United States under the direction of Russian Official without prior notification to the Attorney General.”
Based on the description, the “Russian Official” appears to be Alexander Torshin, deputy governor of the Russian Central Bank and a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Under his direction, the agreement said, she “sought to establish unofficial lines of communication with Americans having power and influence over U.S. politics.”
The agreement, which Butina signed on Saturday, Dec. 8, also notes that the conspiracy charge carries a maximum penalty of up to five years in prison, but the deal could see Butina receive a lesser sentence, depending on the level of her cooperation, before likely being deported back to Russia.
It is unclear what Butina’s cooperation might entail, but federal prosecutors have reportedly notified Erickson that he is a target of an ongoing investigation. The target letter sent to Erickson is from federal prosecutors in Washington, sources familiar with the case told ABC News, and separate from any South Dakota-based federal fraud investigation into his business dealings that has been the subject of earlier media reports.
The Daily Beast reports details of the yet-undisclosed plea agreement. Maria Butina Agrees to Cooperate With U.S.:
Maria Butina, a Russian national who cultivated relationships with powerful American conservative activists, agreed Monday to plead guilty to conspiring to violate laws prohibiting covert foreign agents. As part of her agreement, which was reviewed by The Daily Beast, she has promised to cooperate with American law enforcement.
As a result of the deal, Butina will become the first Russian national since the 2016 election to plead guilty to a crime connected to efforts to influence American politics.
During the campaign season, Butina questioned then-candidate Donald Trump about sanctions; built relationships in the upper echelons of the American gun rights community; arranged for NRA leaders to travel to Moscow; and bragged that she was a channel between Team Trump and the Kremlin, as The Daily Beast first revealed.
In March 2015, according to the plea deal, Butina worked with an unnamed U.S. person—known to be Paul Erickson—to draft a proposal for a diplomatic endeavor. Given the fraught relationships between the governments of Russia and the United States, she “cast herself as a possible unofficial transmitter of communications” between the two countries.
Noting that she had recently attended the conference of an unnamed gun rights group—known to be the NRA—she said she had “laid the groundwork for an unofficial channel of communication with the next U.S. administration,” which she predicted would be Republican. And she asked for a Russian billionaire to give her $125,000 to fund efforts to attend conferences and befriend political power-brokers. She sent the proposal to several people, including an official on the Russian central bank known to be Alexander Torshin. The central bank official told her the proposal “would be supported, at least in part.”
Butina helped arrange a trip to Moscow for NRA leaders in December 2015. She pushed for those Americans to visit with senior Russian politicians, according to the plea deal. The Americans on the trip met with Sergey Lavrov, Russia’s powerful minister of foreign affairs; and Dmitry Rogozin, a deputy of Vladimir Putin and a subject of U.S. sanctions.
After the trip, Butina sent a message to the central bank official in Russian that has two translations in the plea agreement.
“We should let them express their gratitude now, we will put pressure on them quietly later,” reads the first translation.
“We should allow them to express their gratitude now, and then quietly press,” reads the second.
Butina also befriended a wealthy, well-connected American who invited her to a “friendship dinner” where he and his peers would discuss U.S.-Russia relations. The deal does not name that American. Before going to the dinner, she emailed its host to say Torshin “is very impressed by you and expresses his great appreciation for what you are doing to restore the relations between the two countries. He also wants you to know that Russians will support the efforts from our side.”
Butina attended several of these “friendship dinners,” according to the plea deal, where she built relationships with powerful Americans and honed her abilities to influence them.
She also helped arrange for a group of Russians to attend the National Prayer Breakfast, which was held on Feb. 2, 2017, according to the plea deal. She emailed Erickson with a list of attendees and said they were coming to the breakfast “to establish a back channel of communication.” Erickson later emailed the list to another person. “Reaction to the delegation’s presence in America will be conveyed DIRECTLY” to Russian President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, he wrote. He cc’d Butina on that email.
During her time in the U.S., Butina updated Torshin on her meetings and conversations. At one point, she asked him whether the Russian “government” was ready to meet with certain, unnamed people.
In July of this year, Butina was arrested and charged on two counts: acting as a covert agent of a foreign government, and conspiring to break federal law by doing so. The specific charge for acting as a foreign agent is colloquially known as Section 951. … She has only pleaded guilty to the second count, conspiracy. The defense’s estimated sentence for this conviction, according to the plea deal, is up to six months. She has already spent almost five months in jail.
* * *
Earlier this week The Daily Beast reported Erickson has received a “target letter” from federal investigators which says they are considering bringing charges against him under Section 951 of the U.S. code—the law barring people from secretly acting as agents of foreign governments.
Butina had once hobnobbed with the stars of the Republican firmament, getting pictures of herself with Gov. Scott Walker, Donald Trump Jr., NRA chief Wayne LaPierre, former Gov. Bobby Jindal, former Sen. Rick Santorum, and former NRA president David Keene. On July 11, 2015, Butina was in Las Vegas at an early rally for Trump’s embryonic presidential campaign, and asked the future president a question about Russian sanctions. Trump gave a surprisingly detailed answer. A year and a half later, she attended the invitation-only Freedom Ball after Trump’s inauguration.
* * *
As part of her plea deal, she has committed to cooperating with American law enforcement “in any and all to matters as to which the Government deems this cooperation relevant.”
Her future is hazy. She may be welcomed in her home country as a celebrity, as a spy named Anna Chapman was after she was deported from the U.S. in 2010. But Butina could also face a darker homecoming; by the time she returns, if she keeps the deal, she may have spent hours sharing information with the FBI. And Torshin has left his central bank post––meaning her closest known ally has lost most of his power.
Without Butina, Erickson’s future looks rough. He remains a target of the feds,
ABC News (above) adds:
It would appear that, even as Erickson was helping Butina forge those connections, he may have been aware of the political implications.
“Unrelated to specific presidential campaigns,” Erickson wrote in an October 2016 email to an acquaintance that was later obtained by the FBI, “I’ve been involved in securing a VERY private line of communication between the Kremlin and key [unnamed political party] leaders through, of all conduits, the [unnamed gun-rights organization].”
And during an FBI raid of Erickson’s South Dakota home, investigators discovered a handwritten note suggesting Erickson may have been aware of a possible job offer from Russian intelligence services: “How to respond to FSB offer of employment?” Erickson scratched, an apparent reference to the Russian equivalent of the CIA.
* * *
Butina allegedly maintained her cover with the assistance of Erickson. He supported her financially, telling McClatchy DC he established a South Dakota-based company Bridges LLC with Butina in order to help defray her educational expenses, and according to court filings, assisted with her coursework “by editing papers and answering exam questions.”
A change-of-plea hearing has been scheduled for Maria Butina at 3:15 p.m. on Wednesday.
It should be noted that the Special Counsel is not handling Maria Butina’s case. The Special Counsel has bigger fish to fry.
UPDATE: Maria Butina pleaded guilty Butina Plea Agreement (.PDF) in federal court Thursday for conspiracy to act as an illegal foreign agent in the United States. Alleged Russian spy Maria Butina pleads guilty to engaging in conspiracy against US. Butina, 30, was accused of working to infiltrate Republican political circles through groups such as the National Rifle Association to bolster Russian interests. She agreed to turn over any evidence of crimes she is aware of, submit a full accounting of her financial assets, sit for interviews with law enforcement (and waive right to counsel during those interviews) and testify before grand juries or in trials in Washington or elsewhere. She faces a maximum of five years in prison and will likely be deported after serving any time. A hearing was set for February to discuss a sentencing date.
The Washington Post reported that Russians interacted with at least 14 Trump associates during the campaign and transition:
Again and again and again, over the course of Donald Trump’s 18-month campaign for the presidency, Russian citizens made contact with his closest family members and friends, as well as figures on the periphery of his orbit.
Some offered to help his campaign and his real estate business. Some offered dirt on his Democratic opponent. Repeatedly, Russian nationals suggested Trump should hold a peacemaking sit-down with Vladimir Putin — and offered to broker such a summit.
In all, Russians interacted with at least 14 Trump associates during the campaign and presidential transition, public records and interviews show.
CNN reports it is not 14 but 16 Trump associates who had contact with Russians (video).
“Any tree you shake in this Trump forest, a Russian falls out” – Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-CA).
The Post reports:
As Robert S. Mueller III slowly unveils the evidence that he has gathered since his appointment as special counsel in May 2017, he has not yet shown that any of the dozens of interactions between people in Trump’s orbit and Russians resulted in any specific coordination between his presidential campaign and Russia.
But the mounting number of communications that have been revealed occurred against the backdrop of “sustained efforts by the Russian government to interfere with the U.S. presidential election,” as Mueller’s prosecutors wrote in a court filing last week.
The special counsel’s filings have also revealed moments when Russia appeared to be taking cues from Trump. In July 2016, the then-candidate said at a news conference, “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing,” referring to messages Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton had deleted from a private account. That day, the Russians made their first effort to break into servers used by Clinton’s personal office, according to court documents.
As Americans began to grip the reality that a hostile foreign power took active steps to shape the outcome of the race, Trump and his advisers asserted they had no contact with Russia.
It is now clear that wasn’t true.
Literally all of them lied to the American people and most likely to the FBI and prosecutors. Those who lied now face charges for lying to law enforcement, lying to Congress, and perjury charges.
If they did nothing wrong, why did they conceal their contacts with Russians and then repeatedly lie about it? What are they hiding?