Accused Russian agent Maria Butina pleaded guilty to engaging in a conspiracy against the US

maria butinaMaria Butina.Facebook/Maria Butina

  • Suspected Russian agent Maria Butina pleaded guilty Thursday to engaging in a conspiracy against the US.
  • Butina has long been suspected of working with a high-ranking Russian government official to infiltrate the National Rifle Association and influence US policy in favor of Russia.
  • Butina was indicted earlier this year, and prosecutors said she and the Russian official worked to create a "back channel" between Russia and the US by using the NRA as a conduit.
  • The NRA has been under heightened scrutiny from congressional Russia investigators since last year.

Maria Butina, a suspected Russian agent, pleaded guilty Thursday morning to engaging in a conspiracy against the United States.

Butina is accused of infiltrating the National Rifle Association and trying to sway US policy in favor of Russia.

Butina was indicted in July on two counts related to conspiracy and acting as an agent of the Russian government. The indictment said Butina and a high-ranking Russian official, believed to be the Russian politician Alexander Torshin, worked to create a "back channel" between Russia and the US, using the National Rifle Association as a conduit.

"Butina sought to establish unofficial lines of communication with Americans having power and influence over US politics," a DOJ prosecutor said in court Thursday.

Butina has been cultivating her own ties with American gun-rights activists, like Republican strategist Paul Erickson, with whom she has been acquainted since at least 2013.

Erickson appears to fit the description of an individual denoted as "US Person 1" in an affidavit that was submitted along with a criminal complaint against Butina earlier this year.

The affidavit said Butina and this individual worked together to arrange introductions to other Americans who are influential in US politics, "including an organization promoting gun rights … for the purpose of advancing the agenda of the Russian Federation."

The affidavit also said Butina and the Russian official worked to establish a "back channel" between Russia and US politicians.

The affidavit lists another individual, "US Person 2," described as a US citizen who was included in a series of email communications in 2016 and 2017. Butina allegedly told this person that the Russian official was "very much impressed by you" and that the "Russians will support the efforts from our side."

In another email, sent on October 4, 2016, US Person 1 allegedly said to an acquaintance, "Unrelated to specific presidential campaigns, I've been involved in securing a VERY private line of communication between the Kremlin and key [GOP] leaders through, of all conduits, the [NRA]."

The NRA has been under heightened scrutiny from congressional Russia investigators since last year. McClatchy also reported in January that the FBI is probing whether Russia attempted to use the NRA as a vessel to funnel Russian money into the 2016 campaign.

Last year, the NRA was a central topic of interest when Fusion GPS cofounder Glenn Simpson testified before the House Intelligence Committee.

At one point, California Rep. Jackie Speier asked Simpson why Russia appeared so interested in the NRA.

"It appears the Russians, you know, infiltrated the NRA," Simpson said. "And there is more than one explanation for why. But I would say, broadly speaking, it appears that the Russian operation was designed to infiltrate conservative organizations."

Simpson added that Fusion had spent "a lot of time" investigating Torshin, who has been accused, among other things, of money laundering.

"He is one of the more important figures, but, you know, another woman with whom he was working, Maria Butina, also was a big Trump fan in Russia, and then suddenly showed up here and started hanging around the Trump transition after the election," Simpson said.

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