The first Russian to be convicted of trying to infiltrate and influence American policy makers in the run-up to the 2016 election walked into a courtroom on Thursday with her head held high, gazing defiantly at the audience that had gathered to watch her plead guilty.
Wearing a green prison uniform over a billowy long-sleeved shirt with two large holes in each elbow, Maria Butina affirmed to a judge in the Washington, D.C., district court that from 2015 to 2018, she acted with another American, under the direction of a Russian official, as a foreign agent to “establish unofficial lines of communication” with influential politicians—back channels she sought to establish, primarily, by hobnobbing with Republicans at conventions hosted by the National Rifle Association.
Butina, who has agreed to cooperate with prosecutors, could shed light on yet another avenue through which Russia tried to influence American politics in 2016: namely, via an old-fashioned, on-the-ground operation, conducted not by experienced spies but by disarming political operatives. She could reveal whether there was any coordination between President Donald Trump’s campaign, Russia, and the NRA during the election. Butina is young—just 30 years old—but effective: In the short time she spent operating in Washington, she interacted with Trump, Donald Trump Jr., and a Trump-campaign adviser named J. D. Gordon. She also helped organize a Russian delegation to the 2017 National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, D.C., which Trump attended. The delegation was tasked with establishing “a back channel of communication” to the administration, according to prosecutors.