A tantalizing sentence inserted into the case against Maria Butina proved irresistible for journalists and lawyers alike.
Although it was just an aside in a sweeping case alleging that the 29-year-old Russian worked to curry favor with American conservatives, the claim that she had offered sex for a job dominated much of the news coverage about her for weeks. So did the Justice Department’s two-line acknowledgment in a 22-page late-night filing Friday that the allegation was false.
But the breathless coverage of a sexual-proposition-that-wasn’t missed many new details that the court filing reveals about a calculated five-year effort to make inroads with prominent Republicans through gun rights and religion, including the assertion that Butina and her American partner, GOP operative Paul Erickson, saw the scrutiny brought on by hacking of the Democratic National Committee’s computer system as undoing a years-long influence campaign.
In a series of messages from July 2016, Butina, Erickson, and Alexander Torshin, a top official at the Russian central bank and a former senator, worried how public scrutiny of Russia’s newly revealed hack would disrupt their efforts to cozy up to prominent Republicans.
Erickson complained that “it complicates the hell out of a year of quiet back-channel diplomacy in establishing links between reformers inside the Kremlin and a putative [Republican] administration (regardless of nominee or president). ... What a colossal waste of lead time.”
Butina, who was about to begin as a graduate student at American University, also expressed concerns about how the increasing attention to the Russian government’s actions would impact her own.
“Right now I’m sitting here very quietly after the scandal about our FSB hacking into [the Democrats'] emails,” she wrote Torshin. “My all too blunt attempts to befriend politicians right now will probably be misinterpreted, as you yourself can understand.”
Torshin responded that she was “doing the right thing.”
A few months later, when he asked her for a status report on the “Russia-USA friendship society,” Butina responded, “It’s not alive.”
“We are currently ‘underground’ both here and there. Now, private clubs and quite [sic] influence on people making decisions is the trend,” she wrote in the Twitter message, according to the filing. “No publicity.”
When a reporter asked to speak to Torshin in early 2017 about why the Russians kept showing up at NRA events, Butina seemed to panic, telling him “under no circumstances should you contact him.”
“Somebody really threw the three of us under the bus,” she wrote Torshin after the article was published, according to the court filings. “It is better to keep a low profile now. For some time. You probably got in trouble because of that nasty leak? Sorry…”
That year, the two broke their four-year streak of attending the annual NRA convention.
The FBI has reportedly been investigating whether Torshin illegally funneled money to the NRA to help Donald Trump win the election.
US District Judge Tanya Chutkan in Washington on Monday rejected Butina’s request that she be released on bond ahead of her trial, agreeing with a previous decision that the alleged Russian agent posed a flight risk. But Chutkan also slammed US prosecutors for their “rather salacious” claim earlier this summer that Butina had offered sex for a job, only to walk it back when her lawyers accused them of misinterpreting an innocent joke between friends.
The insistence of news organizations — and to some extent, federal prosecutors — to cast Butina as some sort of “Red Sparrow” seductress misses the larger story unfolding in court documents, of an influence campaign that set its sights on influencing Republican politicians’ attitudes toward Russia through the National Rifle Association, the National Prayer Breakfast, and other conservative political events and organizations long before the 2016 election.
Former counterintelligence officials have pointed out that the case is larger than Butina or the Trump campaign. It shows that even before Trump was a candidate, Russia had identified gun rights and religion as two easy access points to connect with powerful US groups and politicians.
The court filings indicate that it was often Erickson, who has not been charged with any wrongdoing, who adopted the more incriminating language.
In asking an acquaintance for tickets to the National Prayer Breakfast for a delegation of Russians in 2017, he wrote, “if we can accommodate them, we can empower rational insiders that have been cultivated for three years.”
He referred to Torshin as “Putin’s emissary,” and told a contact to pitch the Kremlin’s involvement when asking members of Congress and other influential Americans to meet with them — “reaction to the delegation’s presence in America will be relayed DIRECTLY to President Putin and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.”
The message went on to note parenthetically that both Putin and Lavrov had had to “personally approve the delegation’s travel to this event.”
In a previous message to Erickson, Butina wrote that the purpose of the Russians attending the event was to "establish a back channel of communication."
Butina’s lawyer argued that she just “believes and desires peace and better US-Russia relations,” and that what prosecutors describe as her “reports” to Torshin were just due to her being “energized by the excitement of witnessing history and charmed by American culture and politics,” which she wanted to tell people back home about.
“For all of the government insinuation and media coverage of Hollywood style, spy-novel allegations, in reality this case is bereft of any tradecraft or covert activity whatsoever,” he said last week. “There are no dead drops, no brush passes, no secret communication devices, no bags of cash or payoffs, no bribes, no confidential secret information gathering, no espionage type activity, and no agency or agreement to commit crime.”
US prosecutors countered that no one is accusing her of Cold War–era spycraft.
“Stealing 'national secrets' is not an element of any of the offenses with which the defendant is charged,” they wrote.
But they also made clear that they believe the Russian government's actions show that Butina was no average Russian caught up in an American court case. Since her arrest, the prosecutors said, Butina has been visited in jail six times by Russian officials, her detention has been the subject of four notes from the Russian government to the State Department and two conversations between Foreign Minister Lavrov and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and the Russian Foreign Ministry has changed the avatar on its Twitter account to an image of Butina.
"Russia has issued more diplomatic notes on the defendant's behalf in the past month than for any other Russian citizen imprisoned in the United States in the past year."
Butina’s next court date is in November.