Admitted Russian spy Maria Butina and her Republican operative boyfriend Paul Erickson admitted in private communications now in the hands of prosecutors that they worked to set up a secret backchannel between Russia and the Trump campaign using the NRA.
Butina agreed to plead guilty and cooperate with prosecutors Monday after she was arrested earlier this year for illicitly working as a Russian agent, ABC News reported.
In her plea deal, Butina admitted that she and Erickson “agreed and conspired” with central Russian banker Alexander Torshin for her to act as a spy in the US.
Under Torshin’s orders, Butina worked to cultivate relationships inside the NRA and the National Prayer Breakfast, prosecutors said.
But it was Butina and Erickson’s private communications that gave away the game long before prosecutors caught on.
“Unrelated to specific presidential campaigns,” Erickson wrote in October 2016 in an email to an acquaintance now in possession of the FBI. “I’ve been involved in securing a VERY private line of communication between the Kremlin and key [unnamed political party] leaders through, of all conduits, the [unnamed gun-rights organization].”
When FBI agents raided Erickson’s South Dakota home, they found a note on which he mused, “How to respond to FSB offer of employment?” The FSB is the successor to the KGB.
Butina later arranged for Russian officials to attend the National Prayer Breakfast. She sent Erickson a list of the attendees, which he forwarded to another person, writing, “Reaction to the delegation’s presence in America will be conveyed DIRECTLY” to Russian President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, The Daily Beast reported.
The FBI has sent a letter to Erickson informing him that he is the target of an ongoing investigation and may be prosecuted for acting as a Russian agent himself.
NRA outreach came amid record spending: Butina organized a trip for current and former NRA officials to travel to Moscow in 2015 where they met with Lavrov.
After the meeting, Butina wrote to Torshin, “We should let them express their gratitude now, we will put pressure on them quietly later.”
In the months that followed, the NRA spent a record $30.3 million to help President Donald Trump’s campaign, nearly triple the $12.5 million they spent to help Mitt Romney’s campaign just four years earlier.
NRA colluded with Trump campaign, watchdogs say: The NRA did not just spend tens of millions on Trump’s election, they appear to have illegally colluded with his campaign. According to complaints filed by federal watchdog groups and The Trace, both the NRA and the Trump campaign used the same official at the National Media Research firm to sign off on their ad buys.
“This is very strong evidence, if not proof, of illegal coordination,” Larry Noble, a former FEC general counsel, told The Trace. “This is the heat of the general election, and the same person is acting as an agent for the NRA and the Trump campaign.”
NRA broke since 2016: The NRA spent less than $2 million to help Republicans in the midterm elections, roughly 10 percent of what they spent in the 2014 midterms. On Monday, they were forced to lay off an NRA TV host as a result of ongoing financial struggles.