UPDATE 2 — 12/11, 1:36 p.m. EST: Court filings obtained by NBC News Tuesday show Russian operative Maria Butina will plead guilty to a single count of conspiracy in exchange for cooperation with the federal government.
Specifically, Butina will admit to establishing “unofficial lines of communication with Americans having power and influence over U.S. politics . . . for the benefit of the Russian Federation,” at the behest of a Russian national, in conjunction with an unnamed U.S. citizen.
According to reports, the Russian in question has been identified as Alexander Torshin, a former Russian central bank deputy governor, while the American is Paul Erickson, a conservative advocate and lawyer who had an intimate relationship with Butina.
UPDATE — 5:29 p.m. EDT: Appearing in federal court Wednesday, alleged Russian spy Maria Butina pleaded not guilty to charges of conspiring against the U.S. as an agent of the Kremlin.
Prosecutors were successful in convincing the presiding judge Butina was a flight risk, as the 29-year-old Barnaul native was ordered detained without bail until the start of her trial. If found guilty of both charges, Butina will face up to 15 years behind bars.
As President Trump prepared for his meeting with Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, Maria Butina — an alleged Russian spy — was arrested Sunday in Washington on charges of conspiracy to act as an agent of a foreign government and for failing to register as an agent of a foreign government.
Butina, who has been in the U.S. on a student visa since August 2017, was indicted by a grand jury on Tuesday. The indictment alleges that she worked with her contact in the Russian government to infiltrate American political groups as part of a scheme “to advance the interests of the Russian Federation.”
According to court documents filed on Wednesday, Butina was in regular contact with Russian intelligence officials and had engaged in a year-long covert influence campaign. The memo, filed by Assistant U.S. Attorney Erik Kenerson as part of a detention hearing, further enumerates her connections and activities:
- Appears to have ties to Russian Intelligence Services, including maintaining contact information for individuals identified as employees of the Russian FSB;
- Had contact with a Russain diplomat suspected by the U.S. government of being a Russian Intelligence officer;
- Was considered a covert Russian agent by a Kremlin official;
- Has ties to the Russian oligarchy, as evidenced by communications with wealthy businessmen with direct ties to Putin’s administration;
- Applied for a student visa as the “best way” to enter and stay in the U.S. to engage in her covert operation;
- Offered sex in exchange for a position within a special interest group;
- Engaged in a duplicitous relationship with a U.S. person who has ties to and influence on American political activities.
Multiple media outlets suggest that the U.S. person is conservative Republican operative Paul Erickson. Erickson has strong ties to the National Rifle Association (NRA) and has worked on several presidential campaigns. Butin and Erickson have reportedly been cohabitating since Butin’s arrival in the U.S.
The special interest group, though not named specifically in the indictment or memo, also appears to be the NRA.
The Kremlin official has been identified by the Washington Post as Alexander Torshin, a former Russian senator and central banker who was one of 17 Russian government officials subjected to sanctions earlier this year for activities related to Syria, Ukraine, and Crimea. Torshin is a life member of the NRA and regularly attended the National Prayer Breakfast hosted by the organization, accompanied on at least two occasions by Butin.
Also named in the supporting documentation to the indictment is “Political Party 1” which is believed to be the GOP.
In October 2016, Erickson told Butina in an email that he had “been involved in securing a VERY private line of communication between the Kremlin and key ‘Political Party 1’ leaders through, of all conduits, the ‘Gun Rights Organization.’” The FBI concluded this email showed the American’s “involvement in Butina’s efforts to establish a ‘back channel’ communication for representatives of the Government of Russia.”
Erickson has not been charged with any crimes, which could be an indication he is cooperating with the investigation.
After Trump’s election, Butina sent a message to Torshin proposing a meeting between Russian officials and U.S. congressmen; however, Torshin discouraged such a meeting. The FBI reported that this communication was “the Russian Official relaying the Russian Federation’s instructions to its agent, Butina.”
[CBS News] [Washington Post] [NPR] [NBC News] [HuffPost] [Photo courtesy The Washington Post]