Maria Butina wants you to know she’s totally not a honeypot.
Held without bail on charges that she worked as an illegal Russian agent, successfully infiltrating the NRA and high-level GOP circles in a conspiracy to “penetrate the U.S. national decision-making apparatus,” Butina is now seeking to be released to home detention with electronic monitoring.
A new court filing by Butina’s lawyers insists that she is not a flight risk and is being held on weak evidence. The document denounces the U.S. government’s efforts to paint Butina as “some type of Kremlin-trained seductress, or spy-novel honeypot character, trading sex for access and power.” The millennial’s relationship with a GOP operative nearly twice her age, her lawyers insist, is a love story: “She is a young woman of good character and with genuine ties to the United States through her five-year relationship with Paul Erickson.”
The new filing also seeks to clarify Butina’s relationship with “her supposed ‘handler’” — the Russian central Banker and former Russian senator Alexander Torshin who, the document insists “is actually just a friend.” However, in an odd twist, Butina’s legal team acknowledges that an attractive young redhead globetrotting with middle-aged politicos creates a certain impression. Her lawyers contend that her role as Torshin’s “special assistant” was, in fact, invented to avoid raising eyebrows: “She traveled openly in the United States with her purported ‘handler’,” the lawyers write, “and she had a ‘special assistant’ business card that she asked him to provide, so she could help with his travel arrangements while not being mistaken for a paid escort.”
Butina’s legal team casts the 29-year-old Russian as a victim of “sexist stereotypes” — and they attempt to undermine the U.S. government’s claims that “her connections with certain Americans were made through sex, rather than through her intellect.” At their most effective, Butina’s lawyers poke holes in the government’s claim that “Butina offered an individual other than [Mr. Erickson] sex in exchange for a position within a special interest organization.”
They write: “The only evidence the government relied on for its explosive claim was an excerpt from an innocuous three-year-old text exchange” — with a friend and co-worker that was intended as a joke. The friend had taken a shared car to the Russian equivalent of the DMV for a mechanical and insurance inspection.
“I don’t know what you owe me for this insurance,” the friend texted, “they put me through the wringer.”
“Sex,” Butina replied. “I have nothing else at all. Not a nickel to my name.”
The friend texted back: “Ugh…(” adding later: “Think of something! Sex with you does not interest me. Think!”
(Read the exchange.)
Butina’s lawyers accuse the U.S. government of both humorlessness and misrepresentation, writing: “even under a strained reading of an obvious joke, nowhere does Ms. Butina offer anyone sex in exchange for a job (or any other advantage) for herself (or anyone else).” The lawyers insist that, “The government’s allegation should be withdrawn or stricken and certainly should not weigh in favor of detention.”
Butina’s legal team is less convincing in seeking to re-contextualize evidence proffered by the feds to characterize her romance with Erickson as a “duplicitous relationship” because Butina “appears to treat it as simply a necessary part of her activities” and had “complained about living with [Mr. Erickson] and expressed disdain for continuing to cohabitate with him.”
The evidence is a text exchange from 2015 that finds Butina and a friend grousing about their boyfriends. (Read the exchange.) The friend writes that her latest boyfriend has ghosted her: “3 weeks of silence. The hell with him! [angry face emoji].” Butina replies: “It’s even worse in my case. He’s been bugging the shit out of me with his mom. I have a feeling that I am residing in a nursing home.” (It’s unclear if Butina is referring to the AARP-eligible Erickson or his mother in this description.) The two then discuss how to sign up for a dating app.
Butina’s lawyers cry foul here, arguing that the government is “out of bounds” for highlighting “three-year old, offhand complaints about one’s romantic partner being too close to their mother.” They add: “Given that Mr. Erickson’s mother died in 2017 (Maria flew to the funeral) and this type of casual chit-chat between friends is never intended to be public, it was particularly cruel for the government to claim it as the basis for an attack on Ms. Butina’s character or commitment to Mr. Erickson.”
But Butina’s lawyers do not grapple with the full scope of the text exchange. After complaining about Erickson, Butina texts her friend, “Send a link to the dating app.” Her friend directs her to Tinder, and appears to walk her through the registration process. Butina expresses concern that the app requires access to a social media account. “It is asking for Facebook. In other words everyone will know that I am there?” Her friend reassures her: “No… They will not… It is not going to post anything.” The two then dive into a discussion about the app’s settings for discovering romantic matches — lending credence to the idea that Butina was not deeply committed to Erickson.
On more substantive matters, Butina’s lawyers argue that her campaign to ingratiate herself with top NRA and Republican leaders was self-directed, and not managed by Torshin from Russia, as the U.S. government claims. “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,” the document states, “like hundreds of other foreign students and typical Washingtonian mid-twenty-somethings do.”
But Butina’s argument here is undercut by an exhibit her own legal team submitted to the court to demonstrate her seriousness as a student — a letter of recommendation written to Columbia University by Torshin as part of Butina’s graduate school applications. (Read the letter.)
The undated recommendation appears to have been written in late 2015 or early 2016. Torshin describes Butina like a protege rather than a friend — and certainly as more than an ad-hoc travel agent with a phony business card: “During her years as my special assistant in the Russian Federation Council,” Torshin writes, “she learned the difference between reading political science and real life political science. She adapted quickly and was able to learn mountains of process and the special language of government (her third after Russian and English).”
Torshin makes clear that when his job changed, from senator to central banker in early 2015, so did Butina’s: “When my world radically changed just under a year ago, she taught herself another world as Special Assistant to my new position as Deputy Governor of the Bank of Russia. Central bank finance now became more central than legislation, but she discovered that key political truths transcend government institutions… and international borders.”
In a closing flourish that is also unlikely to help Butina disprove she was a Russian asset, dispatched to America to infiltrate high-level conservative social circles, Torshin added of his longtime assistant: “She meets and charms world leaders effortlessly.”