AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
In a courtroom here today, a former graduate student became the first Russian to admit attempted interference around the 2016 election. Maria Butina pleaded guilty to conspiracy to act as an agent of Russia. She led a secret campaign to appeal to political conservatives. NPR national justice correspondent Carrie Johnson has been following the case. She's here in the studio now. Hey there, Carrie.
CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Hey, Audie.
CORNISH: We've been hearing a lot about courtrooms this week. What was this one like?
JOHNSON: Maria Butina walked in. She wore a green jail uniform. Her red hair was in a long braid behind her back. She seemed pretty composed. She answered questions in a clear voice and without any Russian language interpreter. Maria Butina admitted carrying out a secret plan to influence Republican officials by burrowing into elite places like the National Rifle Association and the National Prayer Breakfast. She came to the U.S. as a graduate student at American University.
And while she was there, the FBI took photos of her meeting with Russian intelligence figures. The FBI also gathered her emails and text messages. Basically she was establishing a back channel between Russia and Americans who had political power. She was photographed with people like former Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker or outgoing Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker. She asked candidate Donald Trump a question about Russian sanctions during the campaign. And she met briefly with Donald Trump Jr. at an NRA convention as well.
CORNISH: You've reported that she's agreed to cooperate with investigators possibly in exchange for leniency when she's sentenced. Do you know what she's told authorities?
JOHNSON: We don't yet have a full picture of her cooperation, but the court papers released today offer some hints or clues. Butina said her handler was Alexander Torshin, a former Russian central banker with close ties to the Kremlin. Torshin approved her actions, and they both appeared to want to use their connections to pressure NRA officials later on. Butina also worked closely with an American, Paul Erickson. He's been described as her boyfriend. NPR's reported that Erickson's also under investigation. The FBI found some papers in which Paul Erickson scribbled what to do about an offer of FSB employment. The FSB, by the way, is the Russian spy service. A lawyer for Paul Erickson was in court today for Butina's plea. He said, Paul Erikson's a good American; he's done nothing to harm our country and never would.
CORNISH: What's the next step in this process?
JOHNSON: Maria Butina's going to continue cooperating and probably testify before a grand jury. For now she'll remain in a suburban Washington jail where she's been in solitary confinement. And when she's sentenced next year, she's probably facing between zero and six months. Prosecutors say they might file a petition for leniency if she turns out to be helpful for them. And the judge has asked both sides to appear in court in February to assess the extent of her cooperation. She will be sentenced sometime after that. And ultimately she's likely to be deported back home to Russia.
CORNISH: We've been talking for a couple years now about Russia's effort to undermine the American political system, right? How does Butina fit into that campaign?
JOHNSON: It's important to note that she's being prosecuted by people in the U.S. attorney's office in Washington, D.C., not the special counsel, Robert Mueller. Remember; Mueller's team is assigned to look at coordination between Russia and the Trump campaign. Now, Butina has pleaded guilty to a serious national security charge. It's not just a paperwork violation. But she doesn't seem to have been working for the Russian spy service directly. In fact, her lawyer says if she were, she'd have been a lot smarter and more sophisticated about it. And earlier this week, Russian President Putin said he didn't know Butina; neither did his intelligence service. But Russian consular officials have attended her court hearings, visited her in jail. And the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs has actually changed its Twitter profile to a photo of Butina, so she's not exactly freelancing here either.
CORNISH: That's NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson. Carrie, thank you.
JOHNSON: My pleasure.