Political News

Maria Butina, Russian Accused of Trying to Influence Conservatives, Poised to Plead Guilty

Posted December 10, 2018 7:11 p.m. EST
Updated December 10, 2018 7:12 p.m. EST

WASHINGTON — Federal prosecutors appear to have struck a plea deal with Maria Butina, the Russian woman accused of running a secret campaign to influence powerful American conservatives, according to court papers filed Monday.

The prosecutors and Butina’s lawyers jointly requested a hearing for Butina to change her plea. The move is almost always the final step before announcing a deal, and the request filed Monday said, “The parties have resolved this matter.”

Although neither side disclosed any details of what they may have agreed upon, a deal would most likely require Butina to cooperate with investigators. Her arrest in July stemmed from what officials described as a broader counterintelligence investigation by the Justice Department and FBI, and investigators probably want to hear what Butina could tell them about covert Russian influence efforts in the United States. The inquiry is separate from the work being done by special counsel Robert Mueller.

Any deal would bring to a close a case that drew headlines with prosecutors accusing Butina, 29, of running a yearslong campaign to work her way into the upper echelons of the Republican Party’s elite, using sex as spycraft when necessary. The government later backed off that allegation.

In the government’s telling, Butina used her position as a gun-rights activist in Russia to establish connections with powerful American conservatives, including leading members of the National Rifle Association. She then posed as a graduate student at American University in Washington to secure a visa, prosecutors said, and struck up a relationship with a far older Republican operative, relying on his contacts to further the aims of her spymasters in Moscow.

Butina’s lawyers have pushed back strenuously on that portrayal of their client. They argued in court papers filed in August that the allegations of her trading sex for influence was a “sexist smear” based on years-old texts that were distorted by prosecutors eager to attract media attention. Prosecutors acknowledged they mistakenly interpreted the texts.

Her lawyers have also pointed to Butina’s open life in the United States — she was a frequent poster on social media — as evidence to counter the government’s claims. For an alleged Russian agent funded by an oligarch, they say, Butina hardly lived a life of fake identities, secret communications and hidden allegiances.

During her time as a graduate student at American University, she openly advocated Russia-friendly policies and closer ties between her homeland and the United States in speeches. She posted photos on Instagram of herself toting guns and checked in on Facebook from locations like Russia House, a caviar-slinging lounge in Washington.

Butina also proved adept at getting close to powerful older men. She snapped pictures with prominent Republicans, including Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin and other former presidential candidates. She had Thanksgiving dinner last year at the country home of Rep. Mark Sanford, R-S.C. Weeks before the 2016 election, she went with J.D. Gordon, a Trump campaign aide, to see the rock band Styx.

Butina even managed to get a photo with Donald Trump Jr., the president’s eldest son, whom she met at a 2016 dinner hosted by the NRA in Louisville, Kentucky. She also tried to help broker a secret meeting with President Donald Trump himself and President Vladimir Putin of Russia during the 2016 campaign.

The court in Washington that is handling Butina’s case set a hearing for Wednesday.