Updated at 3:22 p.m. ET
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.
Maria Butina also sought to connect Moscow unofficially with other parts of the conservative establishment, including the National Rifle Association and the National Prayer Breakfast.
She was arrested over the summer after having been monitored by the FBI, including in meetings in Washington, D.C., with Russian officials. Butina also had materials that suggested she was in contact with Russia's domestic intelligence service, the FSB, prosecutors said.
Butina appeared in court Thursday wearing a green jail uniform, her red hair in a long braid running down her back. She answered the judge's questions in a clear voice and without a Russian language interpreter.
District Judge Tanya Chutkan scheduled a status conference for Feb. 12 to assess the cooperation that Butina has given the government.
"The diplomacy project"
Butina worked in concert with her boyfriend, GOP fundraiser Paul Erickson, and a Russian handler, Alexander Torshin, who also cultivated his own relationships with important conservatives in the United States.
A lawyer for Erickson issued a statement after the hearing on Thursday.
"Paul Erickson is a good American," it said. "He has done nothing to harm our country and never would."
Torshin was a Russian government official who is reportedly retiring from his latest role as a deputy governor of the central bank.
Butina laid out her plans in a document called "Description of the Diplomacy Project," according to court documents; she wrote that she believed Russia could not reinvigorate ties with the United States through official institutions.
Instead, she argued, Moscow should expand its "unofficial channels of communication," of which she could be one.
The course she chose was via gun rights, building off Butina's history of shooting and gun ownership inside of Russia. So Butina, Erickson and Torshin sought to strengthen their relationships with the politically powerful NRA.
Butina and Torshin moved in gun rights circles in the United States and, according to court documents, she and other Russians also arranged to host NRA members in Moscow in late 2015.
"During the trip, the gun rights organization members met with high-level Russian government officials as arranged by" Torshin, according to court documents in the Butina case.
After the visit, Butina wrote to Torshin that "we should let them express their gratitude now, we will put pressure on them quietly later," prosecutors wrote in the court papers.
It isn't clear whether "pressure" actually might have been applied to the NRA, by whom or to what end, but its role in Russia's "active measures" has been the focus of scrutiny by members of Congress.
Maria Butina has pleaded guilty to being part of a conspiracy to infiltrate and manipulate American democracy. Butina admitted today she was a Russian agent who used the NRA. Americans need to know: Who at the NRA knew Butina’s agenda, and what did they get in return?— Ron Wyden (@RonWyden) December 13, 2018
The back channel
Butina's work with her compatriots, meanwhile, continued.
Erickson, for example, sent an email to the office of then-Sen. Jeff Sessions, working as a Trump campaign booster, offering to use his NRA connections to establish a back channel between the Trumps and the Russian government.
He wrote this:
"I'm now writing to you and Sen. Sessions in your roles as Trump foreign policy experts / advisors. [...] Happenstance and the (sometimes) international reach of the NRA placed me in a position a couple of years ago to slowly begin cultivating a back-channel to President Putin's Kremlin. Russia is quietly but actively seeking a dialogue with the U.S. that isn't forthcoming under the current administration. And for reasons that we can discuss in person or on the phone, the Kremlin believes that the only possibility of a true re-set in this relationship would be with a new Republican White House."
House intelligence committee Democrats quoted that message in their response to the GOP majority's report that said the contacts between people in the Trump camp and Russians in 2016 were "ill-advised" but not evidence of conspiracy.
President Trump himself told Reuters on Tuesday that contacts between his aides and Russians in 2016 were "peanut stuff." Those contacts also, so far as the public evidence shows, did not yield a high-level meeting.
Although Torshin later met Donald Trump Jr. at an event during an NRA convention, Butina and her colleagues were not able to broker a conference between then-candidate Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The work ran through Election Day 2016 and into the following year, when Torshin instructed Butina about which Russian attendees to arrange to become part of a delegation to the National Prayer Breakfast on Feb. 2, 2017.
Later, Erickson said in an email message on which Butina was cc'd:
"Reaction to the delegation's presence in America will be relayed DIRECTLY [emphasis in original] to the Russian President and Foreign Minister."
Butina is likely to face only up to six months in prison when she is sentenced in 2019. But prosecutors Erik Kenerson and Thomas Saunders left open the possibility they would write a letter seeking leniency for Butina depending on the extent of her cooperation.
Butina told the judge that she understands she is likely to be deported back to Russia after serving any prison sentence.
An earlier version of this story incorrectly said the 2017 National Prayer Breakfast was on Feb. 8. It was held on Feb. 2 that year.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
In a courtroom here today, a former graduate student became the first Russian to admit attempted interference around the 2016 election. Maria Butina pleaded guilty to conspiracy to act as an agent of Russia. She led a secret campaign to appeal to political conservatives. NPR national justice correspondent Carrie Johnson has been following the case. She's here in the studio now. Hey there, Carrie.
CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Hey, Audie.
CORNISH: We've been hearing a lot about courtrooms this week. What was this one like?
JOHNSON: Maria Butina walked in. She wore a green jail uniform. Her red hair was in a long braid behind her back. She seemed pretty composed. She answered questions in a clear voice and without any Russian language interpreter. Maria Butina admitted carrying out a secret plan to influence Republican officials by burrowing into elite places like the National Rifle Association and the National Prayer Breakfast. She came to the U.S. as a graduate student at American University.
And while she was there, the FBI took photos of her meeting with Russian intelligence figures. The FBI also gathered her emails and text messages. Basically she was establishing a back channel between Russia and Americans who had political power. She was photographed with people like former Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker or outgoing Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker. She asked candidate Donald Trump a question about Russian sanctions during the campaign. And she met briefly with Donald Trump Jr. at an NRA convention as well.
CORNISH: You've reported that she's agreed to cooperate with investigators possibly in exchange for leniency when she's sentenced. Do you know what she's told authorities?
JOHNSON: We don't yet have a full picture of her cooperation, but the court papers released today offer some hints or clues. Butina said her handler was Alexander Torshin, a former Russian central banker with close ties to the Kremlin. Torshin approved her actions, and they both appeared to want to use their connections to pressure NRA officials later on. Butina also worked closely with an American, Paul Erickson. He's been described as her boyfriend. NPR's reported that Erickson's also under investigation. The FBI found some papers in which Paul Erickson scribbled what to do about an offer of FSB employment. The FSB, by the way, is the Russian spy service. A lawyer for Paul Erickson was in court today for Butina's plea. He said, Paul Erikson's a good American; he's done nothing to harm our country and never would.
CORNISH: What's the next step in this process?
JOHNSON: Maria Butina's going to continue cooperating and probably testify before a grand jury. For now she'll remain in a suburban Washington jail where she's been in solitary confinement. And when she's sentenced next year, she's probably facing between zero and six months. Prosecutors say they might file a petition for leniency if she turns out to be helpful for them. And the judge has asked both sides to appear in court in February to assess the extent of her cooperation. She will be sentenced sometime after that. And ultimately she's likely to be deported back home to Russia.
CORNISH: We've been talking for a couple years now about Russia's effort to undermine the American political system, right? How does Butina fit into that campaign?
JOHNSON: It's important to note that she's being prosecuted by people in the U.S. attorney's office in Washington, D.C., not the special counsel, Robert Mueller. Remember; Mueller's team is assigned to look at coordination between Russia and the Trump campaign. Now, Butina has pleaded guilty to a serious national security charge. It's not just a paperwork violation. But she doesn't seem to have been working for the Russian spy service directly. In fact, her lawyer says if she were, she'd have been a lot smarter and more sophisticated about it. And earlier this week, Russian President Putin said he didn't know Butina; neither did his intelligence service. But Russian consular officials have attended her court hearings, visited her in jail. And the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs has actually changed its Twitter profile to a photo of Butina, so she's not exactly freelancing here either.
CORNISH: That's NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson. Carrie, thank you.
JOHNSON: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.