Accused Russian honeytrap spy pleads GUILTY to plotting to infiltrate Republican party
Accused Russian spy Maria Butina pleaded guilty Thursday in court to joining a conspiracy on behalf of the Russian government to cultivate sources inside the Republican party before the 2016 presidential election.
The 30-year-old pleaded guilty to one count of ‘conspiracy against the United States’ when she appeared at federal court in Washington D.C.
She said she acted at ‘the direction’ of a Russian official who was not named in court.
He has previously been identified as Alexander Torshin, a Russian politician who is seen as close to Vladimir Putin.
The accused spy faces up to five years in prison and deportation from the U.S. although she will not be sentenced until 2019.
The government dropped a second charge of failing to register while acting as a ‘foreign agent.’ She is cooperating with prosecutors – and is the first Russian national jailed in connection with efforts to influence the 2016 elections.
Crucially, she has agreed to cooperate with all federal authorities, meaning that as well as telling the FBI and other intelligence agencies how her Kremlin spy operation worked, she could provide evidence to Robert Mueller’s special counsel probe – although it was not mentioned in court.
Mueller has charged numerous Russians with hacking Democratic emails, and his probe has charged multiple officials who worked for Donald Trump with lying about their Russia contacts.
‘Butina sought to establish unofficial lines of communication with Americans having power and influence over US politics,’ Judge Tanya Chutkan was told.
She faces up to five years in jail and a $250,000 fine, having already spent time in solitary confinement after her arrest.
But the Kremlin has already voiced fury at the conviction, accusing the U.S. of ‘torture’ and comparing her ordeal to the ‘medieval Inquisition.’
Butina, who was a graduate student at American University studying in the U.S., built up an extensive resume, reaching out the National Rifle Association and Republicans, and even scored a meeting with the president’s eldest son in the run-up to the presidential campaign.
Clad in a green jumpsuit with her red hair pulled back in a long braid, Butina replied ‘absolutely’ when asked by Chutkan if her mind was clear as she prepared to enter her plea of guilty.
Although there are no sentencing guidelines for her specific crime, her lawyer, Robert Driscoll, estimated that under U.S. sentencing guidelines for similar crimes, she could face up to six months in prison.
In the statement of offense read aloud in court, one of the prosecutors said Butina had drafted a ‘Diplomacy Project’ that called for establishing unofficial back channels of communication between high-ranking American politicians to help benefit Russia.
As part of that plan, she acknowledged that she conspired with two Americans and a Russian official. Butina’s lawyers previously identified the Russian official as Alexander Torshin, a deputy governor of Russia’s central bank who was targeted with U.S. Treasury Department sanctions in April.
One of the two Americans referenced in the prosecution’s criminal complaint was Paul Erickson, a conservative U.S. political activist who was dating Butina.
Neither his name, nor her handler Torshin’s, were explicitly used in the statement of offense. He is identified only as ‘US Person 1.’
The accused spy is admitted to conspiracy to gather intelligence on American officials and political organizations by presenting herself as a Russian gun rights activist seeking to make common cause with the NRA.
That would giver her an entree to Republican circles which could then be exploited by her Kremlin controllers, prosecutors say.
Among those she had contact with were the president, who she asked a question of at an event linked to the NRA, and his eldest son Donald Trump Jr., who she met at an NRA dinner.
Her meeting with Don Jr. was one of a litany of contacts between Trump officials and Russians during the campaign.
A total of 16 people in Donald Trump’s circle have been revealed to have met with Russians during the campaign.
She was working for Torshin ‘to establish unofficial lines of communication with Americans having power and influence over U.S. politics . . . for the benefit of the Russian Federation,’ according to federal prosecutors.
She admitted meeting withe members of the NRA and ‘Political Party 1,’ – the Republican Party – as well as meeting arranging a meeting between the NRA and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in December 2015.
In an incriminating email, she reported back to Torshin, ‘We should let them express their gratitude now, we will put pressure on them quietly later.’
Prosecutors have charged that her work was directed by the former Russian lawmaker who was penalized by the Treasury Department for his alleged ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin and is alleged to have links to the Russian mafia.
Her lawyer had argued that Butina was a student interested in American politics and better U.S.-Russian relations, but her changed plea means she has abandoned that claim.
The charges against Butina were brought by federal prosecutors in Washington, and her case was unrelated to special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.
But her cooperation deal has no limits, meaning she could also be used by Mueller’s probe as a source of evidence.
In Moscow, Vladimir Putin this week denied his spies knew her but on Wednesday Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova spoke about her, suggesting the Kremlin in quietly admitting she was one of their assets.
Zakharova claimed Butina has been subjected to a ‘medieval inquisition’.
She told : ‘It’s not about justice, it’s not justice. It’s just inquisition. It’s medieval inquisition. Because she is intimidated, she was tortured and was not treated like a human being, not like a woman.
‘I think she was treated and is still treated probably as a terrorist or something like that,’ she added.
Zakharova claimed Butina is a political prisoner and is innocent.
She said: ‘She did nothing wrong, she is not a criminal, not a terrorist … We have no idea why she was treated like that.’ The US attorney’s office declined to comment.
Butina was charged in July with acting as an agent of Russia’s government and conspiracy to take actions on behalf of Moscow.
One of the two Americans cited in the prosecution’s criminal complaint was Paul Erickson, a conservative U.S. political activist who was dating Butina. Neither Erickson nor Torshin has been accused by prosecutors of wrongdoing.
The prosecutors in the Butina case are not from the office of Special Counsel Robert Mueller, who is investigating Russia’s role in the 2016 U.S. election and whether Trump’s campaign conspired with Moscow to help him win.
The prosecution’s complaint against Butina did not explicitly mention Trump’s campaign.
Reuters previously reported that Butina was a Trump supporter who bragged at Washington parties that she could use her political connections to help people get jobs in his administration.
Trump has denied any collusion with Moscow. Russia has denied interfering in American politics