WASHINGTON – A Russian national who built a powerful network of Republican contacts via the U.S. gun rights lobby that reached into President Donald Trump’s circle admitted Thursday acting as an illegal foreign agent.
Maria Butina — the first Russian convicted in the sprawl of cases arising from Moscow’s interference in the 2016 presidential election — faces up to six months in prison, followed by likely expulsion.
Prosecutors said she launched a plan in March 2015 to develop ties with the Republican Party with the aim of influencing U.S. foreign policy.
They also said she worked together with her American boyfriend, Republican operative and National Rifle Association insider Paul Erickson, to pursue the plan.
The plot was guided and financed in part by Alexander Torshin, an ally of President Vladimir Putin and deputy governor of the Russian central bank whose retirement was reported last week by U.S. media.
Butina’s contacts took her into the high echelons of the Republican hierarchy.
She gained public attention in July 2015 when she was selected to ask then-candidate Trump a question about his plans for ties with Russia at a rally in Las Vegas.
“I believe I would get along very nicely with Putin. … I don’t think you’d need the sanctions,” he said, in possibly his first campaign trail pronouncement on the issue.
In early 2016, Erickson was in contact with a senior official on the Trump campaign, Rick Dearborn, offering to help arrange a meeting between Trump and Putin before the election, with Torshin apparently the connection.
In early May 2016, Torshin and Trump’s son, Don Jr., attended an official dinner during the NRA’s annual convention in Louisville, Kentucky, though it is not known if they spoke to each other.
Butina pleaded guilty to not registering as an agent of a foreign government, a charge often used against foreign spies.
But there was no evidence presented that she worked for any of Moscow’s espionage agencies.