Government Memo: Maria Butina Claimed Influence Over Trump Cabinet Pick
[UPDATE: A federal judge has sentenced Butina to a term of 18 months.]
In the case of Maria Butina — the Russian national who pleaded guilty to conspiracy charges for attempting to create a backchannel between Moscow and the Trump administration using the NRA as a conduit — the U.S. government is asking for a prison sentence of 18 months, followed by Butina’s immediate deportation.
The government’s sentencing memo, filed Friday in federal court, offers striking details to support the claim that Butina was not just a naive and ambitious student looking to build up a professional network in Washington, D.C.
It outlines, for example, a May 2015 meeting between Butina and then-Russian Ambassador Sergei Kislyak in which Butina reported on her progress making inroads with a GOP presidential campaign. (At the time, according to her social media posts, Butina had been interested in the campaign of Scott Walker, then Wisconsin governor.)
The government asserts that Butina “acted at the direction and control” of a “Russian Official,” previously identified as Alexander Torshin. Butina, the memo states, was “fully aware that he reported to the rest of the Russian government and her actions were ultimately for the benefit of the foreign government.” According to the memo, Butina even “voiced worry that others in the Russian government would steal the initiative” to establish a backchannel out from under her.
Perhaps most disturbing, the memo highlights Butina’s claim that she was using her contacts within Trump World in late 2016 to help vet the new administration’s choice for secretary of state. The memo states that Butina “provided the Russian Official with the name of an individual she claimed was being considered for secretary of state” on November 11th, 2016. “She asked the Russian Official to seek the input of the Russian government on the name she provided and told him, ‘our opinion will be taken into consideration’ in the United States.’” The memo offers no further detail on the substance of this explosive claim. (Butina was not mentioned in the redacted Mueller report that detailed extensive contacts between Trump World and Russia. The White House did not immediately respond for a request for comment.)
The government memo explains to the public that “Butina was not a spy in the traditional sense,” but underscores that “[a]cquiring information valuable to a foreign power does not necessarily involve collecting classified documents or engaging in cloak-and-dagger activities.” It emphasizes that Butina’s actions will likely cause serious and ongoing harm. According to an accompanying declaration by Robert Anderson, Jr., a former assistant director of the FBI’s Counterintelligence Division, “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.”
The sentencing memo makes clear that Butina’s public-facing actions — many of which were first detailed in Rolling Stone’s expose of ties between the NRA and Russia prior to Butina’s arrest — are consistent with the behavior of an “access agent” doing “spot-and-assess operations” for Russia. “Butina’s work involved building a rolodex of and information about powerful people who had, or were likely to get, access to and influence over the next presidential administration,” the memo states. “Butina’s reports back to the Russian Official on the people she was meeting have all the hallmarks of spotting-and-assessing reports. The value of this information to the Russian Federation is immense.”
The sentencing document recaps how Butina invited “powerful members of the Gun Rights Organization” — the NRA — “to Moscow as part of the conspiracy’s plan to establish the unofficial channel of communication” and “actively sought out meetings for this group with high-level Russian government officials, as arranged by the Russian Official.”
Through her networking, including with the NRA, the memo states, Butina was seeking to “cultivate lines of communication with individuals she believed would have the ear of the next U.S. presidential administration.” These contacts, Butina herself wrote, “will make it possible to exert the speediest and most effective influence on the process of making decisions in the American establishment.”
Despite her valuable cooperation with ongoing criminal investigations — including, it is believed, the case against her former lover and GOP political operative, Paul Erickson — the government is seeking an 18-month sentence for Butina, which it characterizes as a “significant term of incarceration [that] will serve the governmental interests in providing a just punishment that sufficiently deters others and protects the public.”
For anyone interested in modern spycraft, the declaration by the former FBI counterintelligence official offers fascinating insight. “A spot-and-assess operation does not require secret encryption, dead drops or any other trappings of a Hollywood spy story,” Anderson writes. “In fact, the majority of operations conducted by foreign governments do not involve traditional espionage ‘trade craft’ in the sense that phrase is commonly understood.”
Anderson writes that in his “expert opinion” Butina’s activities “fit the classic pattern” of a spot-and-assess operation, which he calls an “essential component” of intelligence work: “For example, the reports she sent back to the Russian Official have all the hallmarks of targeting packages used in spot-and-assess operations.”
“[T]he information Butina provided to the Russian government through the Russian Official was of tremendous intelligence value,” Anderson concludes, adding: “I have little doubt that at least some of the information Butina provided to Russia has been presented to the Russian equivalent to the FBI’s Assistant Director for Counterintelligence — or even to more senior government officials.”
Butina is due to be sentenced in Washington, D.C. on April 26th.