A Russian woman who schemed to build back-channel ties between the Russian government and the Trump campaign pleaded guilty in federal court on Thursday to conspiring to act as a clandestine foreign agent.
Prosecutors accused Butina, who was jailed awaiting trial, of working with a Russian official and two United States citizens to try to infiltrate the National Rifle Association, a group closely aligned with Republican politicians including President Donald Trump, and sway Washington's policy towards Moscow.
Butina, 30, was arrested in July. She had held a mostly private teleconference last week regarding concerns raised by the government that there might be a conflict of interest issue because prosecutors had evidence - in the form of taped conversations - that Butina spoke with a journalist from jail, potentially in violation in of a gag order in the case. Butina could be punished with up to five years in prison.
She probably will be deported from the USA after her sentence is completed.
The NRA didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.
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Chutkan said she was satisfied that Butina was competent and accepted the plea. Erickson, who is referred to as "U.S. Person 1" in court papers, has not been charged. Under his Torshin direction, the agreement said, she "sought to establish unofficial lines of communication with Americans having power and influence over US politics".
Ms Butina initially pleaded not guilty.
In a statement Wednesday, Erickson's lawyer, William Hurd, said, "Paul Erickson is a good American".
This week, Trump's longtime fixer was sentenced to three years in prison and said he'd assist prosecutors, and the president's former national security adviser acknowledged he'd sat for 19 interviews with prosecutors and provided thousands of pages of documents.
As mentioned, the government is seeking a maximum penalty of 5 years, but given that Butina is cooperating and Erickson appears to be a target, that number could come down.
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In a signed statement obtained by NBC News, Butina said that she had "sought to establish unofficial lines of communication with Americans having power and influence over United States politics" and that she did so on behalf of the Russian government.
Butina organized a delegation and oversaw invitations to attend the National Prayer breakfast in 2017. At one conference, they met with Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker.
Butina even asked Trump a question at a gathering of U.S. conservatives in Las Vegas in 2015 when he was running for president, querying him about American relations with Russian Federation and economic sanctions imposed on Moscow by his predecessor, Barack Obama. Trump said he would.
In 2012 he became a life member of the powerful NRA and began travelling to the USA for its conventions. Among the attendees were Torshin and David Keene, then president of the NRA. Butina's lawyer Robert Driscoll had already been scolded for extrajudicial statements about the case.
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Comics aim to mimic things in the real world all the time, but it is surreal when things in the real world give you a sense of deja vu from the comics, and that is certainly the case with real-life Russian Black Widow Maria Butina.