Maria Butina Pleads Guilty: Everything We Know About Alleged Russian Spy's Connections to Trump, NRA, Republicans

Accused Russian spy Maria Butina admitted in court on Thursday that she participated in a conspiracy against the United States under the direction of a Russian official.

She has agreed to cooperate with investigators and provide details about Russian government efforts to infiltrate Republican political circles. She reportedly will also provide information about the role of her American boyfriend in helping her make contact with highly placed Republicans.

The agreement, which Butina signed December 8, notes that the conspiracy charge carries a maximum penalty of up to five years in jail. The cooperation deal could get Butina a more lenient sentence, however.

Butina was allegedly paid to carry out a proposal, titled “Description of the Diplomacy Project,” that led to her attending meetings and events with the aim of developing ties between Republican and Russian officials.

One example of such an event was the 2015 Nevada Freedom Festival, at which then-candidate Donald Trump was a speaker. During the question-and-answer segment of his talk, Trump called on Butina and answered her question about his plans for working with Russia and lifting “damaging” sanctions on her country.

Butina, 29, recently earned a master's degree in international relations at American University. She was arrested in July and charged with conspiracy to act as an agent of the Russian government without registering with the attorney general.

Until now, Butina had maintained her innocence. Prosecutors, however, claimed that she had worked at the behest of a Russian official to infiltrate Republican political circles on behalf of the Russian government.

In court documents, the FBI claimed that its agents had discovered a handwritten note in Butina's possession asking, “How to respond to FSB offer of employment?”—a reference to Russia's Federal Security Service, a state intelligence organization. She was also allegedly seen meeting a Russian diplomat who is suspected of being a Russian intelligence agent.

Prosecutors say that Butina was in frequent contact with her longtime employer and mentor Alexander Torshin, the deputy governor of Russia's Central Bank and a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Torshin is currently subject to U.S. sanctions and has been accused of laundering money for the Russian mafia through real estate in Spain.

In 2015, Torshin tweeted that he knows Trump and claimed that he met him at a National Rifle Association meeting in Nashville, Tennessee. It is unclear if that claim is true, but Trump did attend the NRA meeting that year and hinted during the event that he might run for president.

In Russia, Butina had launched her own gun rights group, Right to Bear Arms, and used it to develop contacts within the NRA. Butina allegedly tried to help Torshin land a meeting with then-presidential candidate Trump on the sidelines of the 2016 NRA convention. The attempt was ultimately unsuccessful, but Torshin did meet with Donald Trump Jr. instead. The Russian official reportedly claimed to have a message to deliver to Trump from Putin.

It is unclear what Torshin and Trump Jr. discussed during their meeting. Trump Jr. later said that he merely exchanged pleasantries with him. But the Senate Intelligence Committee had been looking into connections between the NRA and Russia since at least 2017.

The NRA has admitted to receiving Russian money, including membership fees from Torshin. The association also donated around $30 million to the Trump campaign. A recent investigation by Mother Jones and website The Trace found that the Trump campaign and the NRA had also coordinated their advertising strategies.

Meanwhile, Butina also helped organize a Russian delegation to attend the 2017 National Prayer Breakfast. Torshin allegedly instructed her on who should be invited. Many analysts and experts note that Russia has been using conservative religious groups to advance the Kremlin's interests in the U.S., and the Prayer Breakfast was one avenue for this.

Butina, who was seen as something of a conservative socialite in Washington, had reportedly bragged about putting members of the Trump campaign in touch with the Russian government and threw parties attended by Trump campaign aides.

In another unexpected twist, Butina has been spotted socializing with Yulya Alferova, a young Russian woman who helped organize the Miss Universe pageant that Trump hosted in Moscow in 2013. Alferova has also met with Torshin and posed with him in photographs at public events.

For several years, Butina was romantically involved with a longtime Republican operative from South Dakota, Paul Erickson, who claimed that he was an adviser to the Trump transition team. Erickson is allegedly the American boyfriend who helped Butina infiltrate Republican circles.

In September, federal investigators reportedly sent Erickson a “charge letter” to inform him that he could be charged for acting as a foreign agent. Erickson reportedly contacted a Trump campaign adviser and offered to set up a secret meeting between President Trump and Vladimir Putin.

Butina is believed to be providing information to investigators about Erickson and his activities.