CNN: Sure looks like Maria Butina just scored a plea deal

Remember Maria Butina? She became the new Anna Chapman earlier this year after getting charged with espionage on behalf of Russia, and attempting to infiltrate activist groups such as the NRA. The Department of Justice painted Butina as a “red sparrow” at first, trading sex for access, a claim they later had to withdraw, but the espionage charges still stuck.

It appears they will stick for good, as CNN reports that Butina has filed a motion to change her “not guilty” plea:

Butina is accused of trying to infiltrate Republican political circles and party leaders during the 2016 campaign in order to advance Russian interests, and prosecutors have said the former American University student was in touch with politically powerful Russians about her activities in the US.

Her attorneys and prosecutors on Monday filed a two-page request for a “change of plea” hearing as soon as Tuesday.

Butina has been accused of trying to broker a meeting between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin, which puts her in the orbit of the Robert Mueller investigation. However, the allegations against Butina predate Trump’s entry into the presidential race. She met with “two senior US officials” in 2015, during Barack Obama’s presidency, and brought along a partner who later ended up on a sanctions list — put there by the Trump administration:

Maria Butina, accused in the United States of spying for Russia, had wider high-level contacts in Washington than previously known, taking part in 2015 meetings between a visiting Russian official and two senior U.S. officials.

The meetings, disclosed by several people familiar with the sessions and a report prepared by a Washington think tank that arranged them, involved Stanley Fischer, then Federal Reserve vice chairman, and Nathan Sheets, then Treasury undersecretary for international affairs.

Butina traveled to the United States in April 2015 with Alexander Torshin, then the Russian Central Bank deputy governor, and they took part in separate meetings with Fischer and Sheets to discuss U.S.-Russian economic relations during Democratic former President Barack Obama’s administration.

The two meetings, which have not been previously reported, reveal a wider circle of high-powered connections that Butina sought with American political leaders and special interest groups.

It’s also worth noting that Mueller’s office didn’t pursue the Butina case, at least not so far. The prosecution has been handled by the US Attorney for DC rather than the special counsel, although that could change depending on what Butina is trading for the plea deal. This effort may have gotten a boost in the effort to indict her one-time paramour Paul Erickson, who got a target letter last week from prosecutors warning him he might be indicted on Butina-related conspiracy charges:

Paul Erickson, a longtime Republican politico whose Russian girlfriend is in jail on charges she acted as a covert foreign agent, has been informed that he may face similar accusations. The Daily Beast reviewed a “target letter” that federal investigators sent Erickson’s lawyer, which said they are considering bringing charges against him under Section 951 of the U.S. code—the law barring people from secretly acting as agents of foreign governments.

The letter also said the government may bring a conspiracy charge against Erickson, who is the boyfriend of accused foreign agent Maria Butina. The letter, which was sent in September by investigators working out of the U.S. attorney’s office in Washington, does not accuse Erickson of any crimes or guarantee that he will face charges.

If prosecutors bring the charges named in the letter, Erickson would be the first American embroiled in the 2016 Russia investigation charged under a statute that Justice Department lawyers describe as “espionage-lite.”

“Charging an American under 951 in the context of the Russia investigation is especially serious because that statute is generally reserved for espionage-like cases, such as intelligence-gathering on behalf of a foreign government,” said Ryan Goodman, a former Defense Department attorney who now teaches at the New York University School of Law.

“Essentially what it would say is that an American was acting to advance the interests of a foreign power, contrary to the interests of the United States of America,” said Renato Mariotti, a former federal prosecutor.

If they’re going after Erickson, then the prosecution has to be more interested in Erickson’s alleged efforts to help Butina get that meeting between Trump and Putin. Erickson wrote an e-mail to a Trump campaign adviser urging them to get the two together during the campaign, and offered to leverage his influence with the NRA to make it happen. That e-mail surfaced a year ago, though, and Mueller didn’t take much interest in it — perhaps because the meeting never happened. It’s clear, though, that Russia was getting pretty desperate to get Trump into the same room with Putin.

Oddly, this plea deal follows a change in counsel that happened last week. Both the defense and prosecution asked for an immediate hearing by teleconference with the judge rather than a simple status hearing. Afterward, the court appointed a public defender to join her legal team, which seems pretty curious in retrospect. The plea deal may have been cooking at the same time as Erickson received his target letter. If Mueller doesn’t take up either case, the latest hot-Russian-spy drama will likely end up like its predecessor … a sideshow.