A lawyer for Maria Butina, the 29-year-old woman charged with working as a Russian agent, on Friday accused the US government of a sexist smear campaign based on misinterpreting a three-year-old joking text exchange with a friend.
In a filing, Robert Driscoll pushed back on prosecutors’ allegations that her five-year relationship with a Republican political operative had been a cover for her campaign to infiltrate the National Rifle Association and other conservative US organizations, and that she had at least once offered sex to someone else “in exchange for a position within a special interest organization.”
The allegations “painted Ms. Butina as some type of Kremlin-trained seductress, or spy-novel honeypot character, trading sex for access and power,” he wrote, adding that the headlines had made it all the way onto her parents’ living room television.
The only evidence for that claim produced by the government is a text exchange with a Butina friend identified as “DK” who worked with her Russian gun rights group, her lawyer said.
“These sexist stereotypes … [suggest] without evidence that her connections with certain Americans were made through sex, rather than through her intellect.”
According to the filing, DK often drove Butina’s car and went to get it inspected and renew her insurance as a favor in 2015.
“I don’t know what you owe me for this insurance they put me through the wringer,” he texted her.
“Sex. Thank you so much. I have nothing else at all. Not a nickel to my name,” Butina responded jokingly, according to her lawyer, and told him he could ask for anything he wanted.
“That they hire you?” she said, in what her lawyer said was “a good-humored reminder that he already works for her gun rights organization.” The group, a Right to Bear Arms, lapsed soon after Butina moved to the US.
“Think of something Sex with you does not interest me. Think!” he responded, with apparently with no punctuation. The texts were in Russian and translated by the government, according to the filing.
Driscoll accused the government of “a sexist smear, using a three-year-old offhand joking reference to suggest that Ms. Butina is some kind of James Bond spy character, promiscuously using sex to advance her career.”
The description in Driscoll’s filing of the friend seems to match Dmitriy Kislov, who did public relations work for Butina’s gun rights group. He told BuzzFeed News last month that the charges were a “serious mistake" and that he knew “for sure that Maria did not work for the Russian government.”
Butina was arrested July 15, accused of being an unregistered foreign agent tasked with influencing US foreign policy toward Russia and directed by a senior Russian government official.
“The evidence is overwhelming the defendant was here on behalf of the government of Russia ... to carry out a covert influence campaign,” prosecutor Erik Kenerson told a court hearing in July.
On Friday, Driscoll also hit back against prosecutors’ characterization of Butina’s five-year relationship with Paul Erickson as “duplicitous” because she “appears to treat it as simply a necessary part of her activities,” and that she had “expressed disdain” for continuing to live with the 56-year-old Republican political operative.
He said it was based on messages with a female friend in which Butina said her boyfriend had been “bugging the sh*t out of me with his mom” and that she has “a feeling that I am residing in a nursing home.”
“It is nothing more than two twenty-something girlfriends chatting about their American boyfriends,” Driscoll wrote. “Three-year old, offhand complaints about one’s romantic partner being too close to their mother should be out of bounds, and certainly not asserted to be proof of a ‘duplicitous’ relationship.”
On Friday, he again asked for his client to be released from jail, where she is being held without bond awaiting trial, calling the charges laid out by prosecutors a “war drum based on pure fiction.”
However, while much of the media attention had focused on the government’s claim that Butina had offered sex for a job, prosecutors in their charges against her focused more heavily on her communications with Alexander Torshin, a powerful Russian banking official and close associate of Russian President Vladimir Putin who was sanctioned by the US in April and who seemed to be directing her activities.
Over five years, Butina relentlessly forged connections with NRA officials and others deemed to be influential in US politics. Long before she moved to Washington, DC, on a student visa in August 2016 to study at American University, she had logged thousands of miles in trips from Moscow to Tennessee, Kentucky, South Dakota, Florida, Nevada, and Wisconsin to build relationships with pro-gun advocates and conservative groups.
Butina and Torshin went to several NRA conventions to foster relationships with influential Americans, some of whom they invited to Russia. They later tried to use these connections to set up a “back channel” to communicate with the Trump campaign, send a Russian delegation to the National Prayer Breakfast, and set up a meeting between Torshin and Donald Trump Jr. at the 2016 NRA convention.
In Friday’s filing, her lawyer argued none of that had been illegal.
“At most, she networked for her own entrepreneurial gain, took pictures with political celebrities as keepsakes, and shared her memorable events and enthusiasm for American culture and politics with family and friends back home, like hundreds of other foreign students and typical Washingtonian mid-twenty-somethings do,” Driscoll wrote.
Butina was preparing to move to South Dakota with Erickson when she was arrested, and jailed without bond after a judge found the risk of her fleeing to Russia to be too great. Her lawyer on Friday produced emails showing that the FBI and Justice Department lawyers had been aware of her plans to move cross-country.
Friday’s filing came a day after prosecutors claimed in a letter that Butina’s lawyer was violating court rules by talking to the press about her case and that they may seek a gag order if he doesn’t stop. At a hearing in July, prosecutors said they were worried about turning over evidence to Butina’s legal team because Driscoll might publicize information that could hinder the investigation.