Paul Erickson, the conservative operative who helped Russian agent Maria Butina make outreach to the Donald Trump 2016 presidential campaign, is still defending her name years after the whole operation went south.
Butina, the gunslinging, flaming Russian redhead—and Erickson’s former girlfriend—infamously admitted to conspiring to act as a clandestine foreign agent of Russia in 2018. Her work including trying to build backchannels between the Russian government and the Trump campaign and infiltrating conservative political circles in the United States. She was sentenced to 18 months in prison in 2019, before being deported back to Russia, where she now serves as a member of parliament.
Erickson—who himself was convicted in a fraud scheme unrelated to the influence operation and sentenced to seven years in prison—claims in new interviews that Butina was never acting as a spy and complained about her treatment in the United States justice system.
“The ultimate insult of her travails in the United States was that not only was she not a spy until she was treated harshly by the justice system, she was once a potentially future ally to America in global relations in a post-truth world,” Erickson said in an interview with Paul Glader and Mary Cuddehe, guest cohosts of the podcast Infamous, which released an episode about him on Thursday.
Erickson rarely speaks publicly since being pardoned by then-President Donald Trump in 2021 after serving two and a half years of his seven-year prison sentence. But the interviews he completed for the podcast during his imprisonment and shortly after his release indicate that he still believes Butina wasn’t in the wrong. The podcast episode “Fool Me Twice: A Russian Spy and a South Dakotan Operative Fall in Love,” is the first in a three-part series to be released over the next two weeks.
”The government’s charge against her was so flimsy,” Erickson claimed in the February 2021 interviews. “This is my opinion, [but] you can’t fully appreciate the lunacy of the government’s prosecution of her without directly refuting their premise for the prosecution.”
Erikson did not respond to requests for comment from The Daily Beast.
From arranging a visit for members of the National Rifle Association in Moscow in 2015 to sending political updates back to Russia while Russian intelligence operatives were working to influence the 2016 election, Butina’s goose was cooked in 2018. She eventually tried to set up a meeting between then-candidate Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin during the 2016 presidential campaign, prosecutors said.
Robert Anderson Jr., a retired FBI counterintelligence official, wrote in a statement filed in court that Butina provided the Russian governmentwith work that aligned with what intelligence officers would provide the Kremlin.
“Butina provided the Russian Federation with information that skilled intelligence officers can exploit for years and that may cause significant damage to the United States,” Anderson said.
Erickson’s comments appeared to echo statements from Russian government officials trying to pour cold water on the idea that Butina was guilty. The Russian Embassy has previously claimed Butina was falsely accused.
Butina, too, has rejected allegations that she was working to spy for Russia, although she pleaded guilty to conspiring to act as a Russian foreign agent. “I wasn’t a spy. I wasn’t working for the government. I was just a civilian,” she said in a 2021 interview with The New York Times.
Butina did not immediately return a request for comment.
Butina came to the United States in 2016 on a student visa, but the scheme dates back to 2013, according to prosecutors. She worked to help “expand” the levers of power Russia leaned on to build ties with the United States. Beyond just working through official ties, Butina believed Moscow would benefit from focusing on “unofficial channels of communication.” For Butina, who grew up hunting with her father, her enthusiasm for guns was her way in.
Their love affair ultimately erupted into a dramatic public scandal, raising questions about whether Butina was acting as a Russian “Red Sparrow” and using seduction to complete tasks for Moscow and merely using Erickson, a well-connected lawyer and businessman, to gain access to conservative circles.
‘Zero chance of linking me’
According to Erickson, the relationship crumbled after his arrest.
“When my arrest happened, then was this strategic, we just said, right, this is farewell for now, until we didn’t know when, if ever. Because we couldn’t,” Erickson said in an interview with the podcast hosts in January of 2021. “Every communication, everything would have been monitored or used against her or against me.”
Despite his recounting of the dramatic break-up, the Republican appears to be sticking to his declaration that Butina wasn’t a “Red Sparrow,” claiming instead that “she was a reformer, an enemy of the state, Top 10 dissident.”
Erickson was pardoned by Trump in the final hours of his administration, even though the lawyer had pleaded guilty to the charges against him. The former president indicated that he thought Erickson was indicted because of the probe into Russian ties with his campaign. The conviction of Erickson was “based off the Russian collusion hoax,” Trump said at the time, adding the pardon “helps right the wrongs of what has been revealed to be perhaps the greatest witch hunt in American History.”
Erickson appeared to defend himself and his own record in the podcast interviews.
“A couple deals in the course of my life that didn’t work, but nobody was, nothing was ever taken,” he said.
Although Erickson’s charges weren’t tied to the Russian influence op, records show that he was also trying to arrange backchannel communications between Russia and the United States. In one note he sent to then-Sen. Jeff Sessions, Erickson admitted to working “quietly” on a backchannel.
“Happenstance and the (sometimes) international reach of the NRA placed me in a position a couple of years ago to slowly begin cultivating a back-channel to President Putin’s Kremlin. Russia is quietly but actively seeking a dialogue with the U.S. that isn’t forthcoming under the current administration,” Erickson wrote.
In the new interviews, however, Erickson indicated that he was never too worried about the Russian influence operation saga.
“They had zero chance of linking me to any political or intelligence stuff related to Maria,” he said.
You can listen to the Infamous podcast here.