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Maria Butina, suspected Russian agent, pleads guilty to conspiracy

It's not every day that an accused covert Russian agent agrees to cooperate with U.S. prosecutors.

As Rachel joked on the show last night, "It's Advent calendar season, which means every day, you open a new tiny door to discover a new bit of wonder." Yesterday's door led to Michael Cohen's prison sentence and revelations surrounding AMI implicating Donald Trump in a felony.

Today's door opens to show us Maria Butina's guilty plea.

Russian operative Maria Butina, who is accused of infiltrating politically powerful U.S. organizations, including the National Rifle Association, in an effort to push Moscow's agenda, pleaded guilty Thursday to a conspiracy count.Butina has agreed to cooperate with federal prosecutors and pleaded guilty in a Washington, D.C., courtroom to one count of conspiracy to violate the law governing foreign agents operating in the United States. [...]Thursday's guilty plea means she is admitting to conspiring with an unnamed American to act at the direction of a Russian official "to establish unofficial lines of communication with Americans having power and influence over U.S. politics ... for the benefit of the Russian Federation," according to a plea agreement.

The person she conspired with, we've recently learned, was Paul Erickson, a longtime Republican operative, who was apparently romantically involved with Butina.

Her guilty plea caries a five-year prison term, though she's hasn't yet been sentenced and we don't yet know whether the Russian will receive the maximum penalty.

Of course, the fact that Butina has struck a deal with prosecutors is a rather remarkable development: it's not every day that an accused covert Russian agent agrees to cooperate with U.S. prosecutors, and if she's forthcoming, Butina is in a position to answer more than a few interesting questions.

It's a tough story to summarize in a single post -- if you missed Rachel's segment on this from Monday, I encourage you to take the time to watch it -- but it's clear that Butina had some success in her infiltration efforts.

For example, in 2015, Butina was the first person to get then-candidate Donald Trump to talk on the record about U.S. sanctions against Russia – and the fact that he wanted them dropped.

As we discussed the other day, in the months that followed, Butina allegedly continued with a series of efforts to work her way into the American conservative movement, with a specific focus on establishing connections with the NRA. If the far-right gun group was used as some kind of conduit for Russian interference, a plea agreement between Butina and federal prosecutors could bring some much-needed sunlight to the lingering controversy.

We're still working through today's developments in court, but I think it's a safe bet Rachel will have more on this story on tonight's show.