By Elisha Fieldstadt, Charlie Gile and Rich Schapiro
Russian operative Maria Butina admitted Thursday to conspiring to infiltrate influential conservative organizations, including the National Rifle Association, in an effort to push Moscow's agenda.
Butina, 30, who has agreed to cooperate with federal prosecutors, pleaded guilty in a Washington courtroom to one count of conspiracy to violate the law governing foreign agents operating in the U.S.
The felony carries a five-year prison term, but the estimated sentencing guideline range is from zero to six months in prison. The charge was brought by the U.S. Attorney's Office in Washington, unrelated to special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.
As a noncitizen, Butina would face deportation after serving any prison sentence.
"The decision on whether to deport you is not one that this court will make," Judge Tanya Chutkan said.
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Butina has been held without bail after she was arrested in July. A former graduate student of American University in Washington, she had been in the U.S. on a student visa.
In pleading guilty, Butina admitted to working with her Republican operative boyfriend Paul Erickson — identified in court papers as as "U.S. Person 1" — at the behest of a Russian official in order "to establish unofficial lines of communication with Americans having power and influence over U.S. politics … for the benefit of the Russian Federation."
Erickson has not been charged. In a statement, his lawyer William Hurd said, "Paul Erickson is a good American. He has done nothing to harm our country and never would."
The Russian fits the description of Alexander Torshin, who recently retired as deputy governor of the Central Bank of Russia. As NBC News has previously reported, Torshin reached out to the Trump campaign seeking a meeting between Putin and Trump. He met Donald Trump Jr. in May 2016 at an NRA dinner.
In December 2015, Butina helped orchestrate a trip by NRA members to Moscow in which she set up a meeting between the American gun supporters and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, court papers say.
After that meeting, Butina sent Torshin a message revealing the Russians' true aims. "We should let them express their gratitude now, we will put pressure on them quietly later," the message read, according to prosecutors.
The NRA did not return a request for comment.
Under the direction of Torshin, Butina organized a Russian delegation to the 2017 National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, and hosted influential people at U.S.-Russian "friendship dinners," the court documents say.
The purpose of the gatherings was "to cultivate lines of communications with individuals she believed would have the ear of the next U.S. presidential administration," according to her plea agreement.
"At these dinners, Butina was able to meet individuals with political capital, learn their thoughts and inclinations toward Russia, gauge their responses to her, and adjust her pitch accordingly."
Elisha Fieldstadt is a breaking news reporter for NBC News.
Rich Schapiro is a reporter for the NBC News Investigative Unit.