Maria Butina, a Russian woman accused of trying to influence powerful conservatives, has reached a plea deal with prosecutors.Associated Press
WASHINGTON — Maria Butina, the Russian woman accused of running a secret campaign to influence powerful American conservatives, has agreed to plead guilty to conspiring to act as a foreign agent, bringing to a close a case that had drawn headlines with prosecutors talking of a sly seductress who traded sex to further the aims of her spymasters in Moscow.
But in court papers laying out the plea deal, the portrayal of Ms. Butina is far tamer than the narrative the government put forward after her arrest in July. The latest filings make no mention of the most salacious accusations against Ms. Butina — that she used sex as spycraft — and she instead comes across as the tool of powerful men who helped her to infiltrate the National Rifle Association and the Republican Party.
Prosecutors even appear to have backed off the accusation that Ms. Butina used a graduate program at American University in Washington merely as a cover to enter the United States. “All available evidence indicates that Butina had interest in a graduate school education,” prosecutors say in a footnote.
The deal, which now must be approved by a judge, stipulates that Ms. Butina must cooperate with federal, state and local authorities in exchange for what could be a short prison term, or possibly a release after having already spent five months in jail. As a felon, she will most likely be deported after her release, as was made clear in court filings laying out the deal that were obtained by The New York Times.
Her arrest in July stemmed from what officials described as a broader counterintelligence investigation by the Justice Department and the F.B.I., and investigators probably want to hear what Ms. Butina could tell them about covert Russian influence efforts in the United States. The inquiry is separate from the work being done by the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III.
In the government’s earlier telling, Ms. Butina had 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 had 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.
Ms. Butina’s lawyers had pushed back strenuously on that portrayal of their client. They argued in court papers filed in August that the accusations 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 had also pointed to Ms. 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, Ms. 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 photographs on Instagram of herself toting guns and checked in on Facebook from locations like Russia House, a caviar-slinging lounge in Washington.
Ms. 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 Representative Mark Sanford, Republican of South Carolina. Weeks before the 2016 election, she went with J.D. Gordon, a Trump campaign aide, to see the rock band Styx.
Ms. 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 N.R.A. in Louisville, Ky. She also tried to help broker a secret meeting with President Trump himself and President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia during the 2016 campaign.
The court in Washington that is handling Ms. Butina’s case set a hearing for Wednesday.
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