Maria Butina pleaded guilty in federal court on Thursday to failing to register as an agent of a foreign government and pledged cooperation with prosecutors.
The outcome was not good for Butina, who was accused of infiltrating the National Rifle Association and other conservative groups to “forge relationships with conservative activists and leading Republicans in the United States,” according to Rosalind Helderman, Tom Hamburger and Michelle Ye Hee Lee of the Washington Post under the headline, “Russia agent’s guilty plea intensifies spotlight on relationship with NRA.”
She could serve up to five years in prison, although that seems unlikely if she cooperates with prosecutors. She told the court she has been informed she almost certainly will be deported when her sentence ends.
Most of the mainstream media took a clinical approach to the story. They pointed to the sentencing document, which said she had worked with another senior Russian official to develop “unofficial channels of communication with Americans having power and influence over U.S. politics.”
Butina “admitted to acting under the direction of a Russian official, Alexander Torshin, another prominent gun rights supporter and a fixture in Russian politics,” according to “What you need to know about accused Russian spy Maria Butina’s plea deal” on Vox by Jen Kirby.
She also worked with Paul Erickson, a longtime Republican political operative from South Dakota, “to infiltrate conservative circles” and “establish unofficial lines of communication with Americans having power and influence in US politics,” Kirby wrote.
Neither Kirby’s story, nor Michael Isikoff’s Yahoo story entitled “Plea deal by Russian agent Maria Butina describes 2016 influence campaign,” mentioned President Trump at all, and Isikoff made only a passing reference to Special Counsel Robert Mueller.
The New York Times points out in the lead of its story – “Maria Butina Pleads Guilty to Role in a Russian Effort to Influence Conservatives” by Matthew Rosenberg – that she “schmoozed with Republican presidential candidates and became a supporter of Donald J. Trump.”
Salon went all in on tying this to Trump. The headline on its story by Lucian Truscott reads, “Maria Butina’s plea is the worst news ever for Trump.” The subhead reads: “What the Russia spy’s guilty plea tells us about Trump’s chances of surviving Mueller’s investigation.”
The plea, Truscott wrote, “is the worst news Donald Trump has faced in months, but not for the reason many think.”
According to Truscott, it’s because Butina was prosecuted not by Mueller but by the U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia, which “you would think … would come as good news to Trump.” But it’s not because Mueller is working with other prosecutors and because Paul Manafort pleaded guilty in the same court.
“So the fact that Butina is pleading guilty and agreeing to cooperate means that Mueller will be a beneficiary of what she knows about Russian influence in the election of 2016,” Truscott wrote.
But what should seriously worry Trump, he wrote, “is what Butina’s guilty plea says about his friend Vladimir Putin in Russia.” She wouldn’t have pleaded guilty and agreed to cooperate if he hadn’t given the OK and wouldn’t have a country to return to after being deported without his approval. “If Putin has decided to cut Butina loose, he’s cutting Trump loose as well.”
Trump “may have his supporters, but he has a diminishing list of friends,” Truscott wrote. “He’s holding on to support among Republicans in the House and Senate only because of their fear that his rabid right-wing supporters will turn on them. And now he’s lost the one friend among world leaders he could count on, Russian president Putin – maybe Trump saw this coming, Putin didn’t exactly go out of his way to give him the love at the recent G-20 summit in Argentina.”
Later, Truscott concluded, “Mueller is going to connect Donald Trump and his campaign directly to the government of Vladimir Putin. This week, with the guilty plea of his agent Maria Butina, Putin appears ready to help him.”
Putin has said he doesn’t know Butina, nor does anyone else he knows who is connected to the Russian intelligence community.