Maria Butina, the alleged Russian spy who posed as a gun rights activist to court influence among Republicans, will plead guilty today for conspiring to violate Section 951 - the federal statute referred to by the DOJ as "espionage-lite" - during the 2016 election. She has also agreed to work with federal prosecutors investigating how Russians may have laundered money through the NRA to elect Donald Trump in 2016.
This guilty plea will likely implicate her boyfriend, Paul Erickson, and the role he played in her efforts to infiltrate Republicans. This makes him the first American to be brought up on Section 951 charges in the Russia investigation. While he is not identified in either the plea deal or the affidavit issued after Ms. Butina's arrest last summer, those who could read between the lines have suspected that it was him for a long time now.
Erickson Aided and Abetted His Lover
Before this, Erickson had been a Republican operative and businessman, though not a very successful one after facing multiple lawsuits from investors who claimed he'd defrauded them. He and Butina first met in Moscow at the end of 2013 and became a couple shortly after. They traveled around the world together and met each other's families in their respective homes of Siberia and South Dakota.
They made no secrets of their romantic involvement. Erickson regularly referred to her as his "Siberian princess" and filmed videos of them singing Disney songs together. At her birthday party, held shortly after Donald Trump's election, they came dressed in full costume as a Russian empress, and infamous mystic Grigori Rasputin. But their relationship was more than just romantic.
In March of 2015, Butina and Erickson drafted a proposal titled "Project Description - Diplomacy" that was circulated among Russian insiders, including her alleged handler, banker Alexander Torshin. The proposal stated that Republicans would likely win the next election, and the best way to build cordial relationships with them was through gun rights advocacy.
Under Torshin's direction, Erickson would help his lover meet prominent Republicans. Among those she met (and was photographed with) were Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, former Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, Sheriff David Clarke, and even Donald Trump Jr. She even arranged a December 2015 trip to Moscow for NRA officials.
When Butina became a graduate student at American University in 2016, Erickson supported her financially through a South Dakota company called Bridges LLC. Investigators still are unclear as to how that company got its money, but we know from court filings that his support for her graduate studies was more than just financial: he also answered her exam questions and edited her papers.
Lest you should think Erickson was merely a patsy this whole time, his written correspondence seems to indicate that he was in on it. After Trump clinched the Republican nomination, he emailed the campaign, telling them he could arrange a meeting between the presumed nominee and Russian President Vladimir Putin. An October 2016 email obtained by the FBI, says “Unrelated to specific presidential campaigns...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].”
A potential smoking gun comes in the form of a handwritten note taken from an FBI raid of Erickson's South Dakota home. In it, he asks, "How to respond to FSB offer of employment?" The FSB is the Russian equivalent of the CIA.
What Happens Next?
Since Butina's arrest last summer, Erickson has regularly visited her in the jail where she has been held in solitary confinement. While he has not been accused of any specific crimes or been guaranteed to face charges, he has lawyered up, retaining attorneys in Virginia whom he is reportedly struggling to pay.
The issue that strikes him closest to home, however, is the prosecutors' claims that Butina regarded their relationship as a sham, seeing him as nothing more than a pawn in her game. Her attorneys have denounced these statements, saying they only want to smear her as a "Kremlin-trained seductress." Russians have painted her as a political martyr and victim of U.S. Russophobia.
The truth is that Butina conspired with Erickson to advance Russian interests in the United States. But in doing so, she inadvertently revealed the gleeful corruption of the Republican Party and its willingness to work with a foreign government to subvert the democratic process in America.