- Russian leader Vladimir Putin said that that "nobody" at his country's spy agencies "knows anything about" Maria Butina — who is charged by U.S. prosecutors with acting as an agent for Russia.
- Putin's claim came as Butina, a Russia-born gun rights activist, is reportedly expected to plead guilty as part of a deal with prosecutors in federal court in Washington to conspiring with a Russian official and another person to act as a foreign agent.
- That conspiracy allegedly involved efforts to infiltrate the National Rifle Association gun rights group, whose members include Butina's boyfriend, longtime Republican operative Paul Erickson.
Russian leader Vladimir Putin said Tuesday that "nobody" at his country's spy agencies "knows anything about" Maria Butina — who is accused by U.S. prosecutors of acting as an agent for Russia.
Putin's claim came as Butina, a Russia-born gun rights activist, is expected to plead guilty as part of a deal with prosecutors in federal court in Washington to conspiring with a Russian official and another person to act as a foreign agent. The deal calls for Butina to cooperate with federal prosecutors, who are continuing to investigate.
Butina's plea hearing — which was originally set for Wednesday — was rescheduled to Thursday morning.
The conspiracy in the case allegedly involved efforts to infiltrate the National Rifle Association gun rights lobbying group, whose members include Butina's boyfriend, longtime Republican operative Paul Erickson.
The Russian official allegedly involved in the conspiracy is believed to be Alexander Torshin, a former Russian senator who is close to Putin.
Documents obtained by NBC News say Butina will admit she conspired with an unidentified 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."
Law enforcement officials said the American is Erickson.
The same documents talk about Butina's efforts to build ties with a "gun rights organization," and "Political Party 1," which is the Republican Party.
The documents also confirm that Butina was involved in arranging a trip by NRA members to Moscow in late 2015.
The charge that Butina plans to plead guilty to carries a maximum possible sentence of five years in prison, but the estimated federal sentencing guideline range for her will be from no time in jail to up to six months. She also faces deportation after her sentence ends.
Putin, according to the Reuters news service, said Tuesday that it is unclear to him why Butina was arrested in the United States, because the chiefs of Russia's intelligence agencies had informed him they do not know anything about her.
"She risks 15 years in jail. For what?" Putin asked.
"I asked all the heads of our intelligence services what is going on. Nobody knows anything about her," Putin said.
Putin's statement about Butina also comes as Russia's Foreign Ministry continues to use Butina's photo and the hashtag motto #FreeMariaButina as the avatar for its official Twitter account.
The claims of ignorance by the Russian leader about Butina were quickly met with skepticism.
Butina, who had been studying at American University in Washington as a graduate student, was arrested in July on charges of conspiracy and failing to register as a foreign agent.
She pleaded not guilty to those charges, and has remained in custody since then.
Last week, the Daily Beast reported that a lawyer for Erickson was sent a letter informing him that prosecutors were considering charging Erickson with secretly acting as an agent for a foreign government.
At a public event in Las Vegas in July 2015, Butina asked then-presidential candidate Donald Trump whether if elected he would continue maintaining the "damaging" U.S. sanctions against Russia.
"Obama gets along with nobody. The whole world hates us," Trump said. "I know Putin, and I'll tell you what: We get along with Putin. Putin has no respect for President Obama. Big problem."
"I believe I would get along very nicely with Putin ... I don't think you would need the sanctions," Trump added. "I think we would get along very very well. I really believe that."