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Who is Maria Butina?

Maria Butina is a 29-year-old Russian who is accused of acting as a foreign agent in the United States and allegedly using sex and deception to build her network of influential international connections. CNN's Randi Kaye looks into her past.

Posted: Dec 14, 2018 6:39 AM
Updated: Dec 14, 2018 7:09 AM

Alleged Russian spy Maria Butina pleaded guilty in federal court Thursday for conspiracy to act as an illegal foreign agent in the United States.

Butina, 30, was accused of working to infiltrate Republican political circles through groups such as the National Rifle Association to bolster Russian interests.

Butina said she acted "under direction of" a Russian official whom CNN has identified as Alexander Torshin, the recently retired deputy governor of the Central Bank of Russia.

"Butina sought to establish unofficial lines of communication with Americans having power and influence over US politics," the prosecutor said in a Washington courtroom.

Her guilty plea and agreement to cooperate comes with the hope that prosecutors will ask for a reduced sentence. She agreed to turn over any evidence of crimes she is aware of, submit a full accounting of her financial assets, sit for interviews with law enforcement (and waive right to counsel during those interviews) and testify before grand juries or in trials in Washington or elsewhere.

She faces a maximum of five years in prison and will likely be deported after serving any time. A hearing was set for February to discuss a sentencing date.

In court, Butina said her mind was "absolutely clear." This comes in contrast to her lawyer's previous notice to the court that as of late November, she was in solitary confinement in jail and the conditions were "starting to have a profound psychological impact" on her.

Since late November, Butina has been allowed time out of the cell at night and for other activities, including for church and to visit with a Russian orthodox minister, which has helped her mental state, her attorney Robert Driscoll said.

Work to infiltrate conservative circles

The conspiracy, as prosecutors described it in court, kicked off no later than March 2015 with a draft proposal Butina wrote to Torshin and others called the "Description of the Diplomacy Project."

It described her plan to become an unofficial conduit of communication between Russia and the US, especially through the Republican Party, at a time when the two governments were less willing to negotiate formally. She had also planned to use $125,000 from Torshin to attend conferences associated with the GOP -- particularly the NRA, which she believed "had influence over" the Republican Party, she admitted.

NRA members also received her invitation to visit Moscow and meet with high-ranking Russian politicians. Torshin and "US Person 1", whom CNN identified as Butina's boyfriend Paul Erickson, a GOP political operative, helped her prepare for the trip. After the trip in December 2015, she said to her Russian backer, "We should let them express their gratitude now, we will put pressure on them quietly later."

She helped a US citizen host "friendship dinners" with other wealthy and influential Americans to talk about US-Russian policy, prosecutors said and Butina admitted in court.

Butina organized a delegation and oversaw invitations to attend the National Prayer breakfast in 2017. She noted to Erickson at the time that the people were "coming to establish a back channel of communication."

She also admitted that Torshin "did not believe" the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs would "go for it" when she asked him in November 2016 "how to create a dialogue with the then President-elect's advisers," prosecutors said in court, referring to advisers of Donald Trump.

Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova said Thursday that Butina took the deal "to survive."

"She used this option to survive," Zakharova told CNN. She has described Butina's arrest as politically motivated.

Erickson's defense attorney, William Hurd, attended the plea hearing. After the hearing, he said he would speak to his client before deciding whether to make a public statement. He said he did not know in which jurisdiction Butina would be helping a criminal investigation, if she does indeed cooperate with one involving Erickson.

Butina spoke from jail with journalist

US District Judge Tanya Chutkan began Thursday's court session by revealing why Butina was appointed a public defender.

Chutkan said that prosecutors had tapes of a call Butina made from jail with a journalist and that prosecutors flagged this to the judge as a potential conflict of interest. On the call, Butina referred to someone whom prosecutors believe could be her lawyer about acting as a go-between to pass messages to journalists.

Chutkan said she did not find that Butina's lawyer Driscoll acted improperly, but said it was why a public defender was appointed.

During the calls, the prosecutors also learned that Butina told other inmates to talk to her lawyer and to speak to the media on her behalf.

This story is breaking and will be updated.

Mississippi Coronavirus Cases

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Confirmed Cases: 115088

Reported Deaths: 3255
CountyConfirmedDeaths
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DeSoto703979
Harrison522384
Jackson457884
Rankin394086
Madison383194
Lee357380
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Jones292484
Washington258399
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Panola170040
Leflore167187
Sunflower162349
Warren154855
Monroe150673
Pontotoc147220
Marshall143129
Lincoln140157
Pike138456
Copiah137536
Scott125429
Coahoma124937
Grenada122638
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Tippah90322
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Winston84121
Hancock84028
Tishomingo81241
Attala79426
Clarke75851
Clay69321
Jasper68717
Walthall63927
Calhoun62612
Noxubee59817
Smith59416
Montgomery54923
Yalobusha54514
Claiborne53716
Tunica53517
Lawrence51814
Perry49423
Carroll49312
Greene47818
Stone47514
Humphreys43816
Amite42513
Quitman4206
Jefferson Davis41011
Webster37613
Benton3416
Wilkinson33820
Kemper32615
Sharkey28514
Jefferson27610
Franklin2423
Choctaw2086
Issaquena1074
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Alabama Coronavirus Cases

Confirmed Cases: 155915

Reported Deaths: 2674
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Jefferson23129377
Mobile16849315
Tuscaloosa10296140
Montgomery10197197
Madison928096
Shelby733863
Baldwin663769
Lee653465
Calhoun456761
Marshall438150
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Limestone284230
Walker277292
Talladega265335
Cullman244024
Lauderdale226242
Jackson214915
Franklin205231
Autauga204831
Colbert200532
Russell19443
Blount192525
Chilton186932
Dallas186527
Coffee176311
Dale175151
Covington174029
Escambia172530
Chambers135044
Clarke134317
Pike133513
Tallapoosa131787
Marion107629
Barbour10319
Marengo100822
Butler100740
Winston92213
Geneva9007
Lawrence85032
Pickens84718
Bibb82814
Randolph82316
Hale76730
Washington74412
Clay74112
Cherokee73314
Lowndes70928
Henry7086
Bullock64817
Monroe64610
Crenshaw60630
Perry5896
Fayette57413
Wilcox56712
Conecuh56113
Cleburne5568
Macon53420
Lamar4905
Sumter47221
Choctaw39012
Greene34216
Coosa2033
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