Though her court case coincides with an intense period of the Justice Department’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential election, Butina should not be grouped into recent developments in US-Russian relations, her defense attorney said.
“Ms. Butina is not a proxy for any serious and substantial issues our country has with Russia right now,” defense attorney Robert Driscoll told the judge Wednesday.
Throughout the almost two-hour hearing, Butina flipped her long red hair a few times but generally sat stoically. Despite her attorney’s request to let her appear in street clothes, she wore the orange uniform of an inmate — but no ankle or wrist restraints.
To secure her jailing, federal prosecutors laid out conversations and photos the former American University student had with Russian politician Alexander Torshin and other powerful Russians. When she texted Torshin a photo of herself smiling in front of the US Capitol on President Donald Trump’s inauguration day, prosecutors said, Torshin texted his mentee back: “Daredevil girl!”
Butina’s attorney had argued for her to be released after she was held for three days following her arrest Sunday. He suggested she could stay in DC and provide weekly check-ins with law enforcement.
Driscoll stressed that the 29-year-old was like any other foreign master’s student in the US over the past several years.
Yet Butina now faces two criminal charges of conspiracy and acting as a foreign agent in the US — charges built around the photos, texts, private Twitter messages and other communications she had with Russians discussing her aims to infiltrate the Republican Party through the National Rifle Association. If found guilty, she could face up to 15 years in prison.
Butina’s arrest and court hearing came two days after the Justice Department’s Special Counsel’s Office indicted 12 Russians for hacking the presidential election and the day before President Donald Trump met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, Finland. Driscoll specifically cited the Russian hacking case in court as separate from her matter. A different section of the Justice Department than the Special Counsel’s Office is handling her investigation and prosecution.
Aiming for politics
Butina allegedly spent years aiming to set up back-channel communications between Russia and the Republican Party through the NRA, as well as between Russia and the Trump campaign, according to prosecutors and CNN reporting. Her ultimate goal was to make American leadership more sympathetic to Russian interests, according to court filings.
Prosecutors said Butina kept in touch with employees of the Russian FSB, the spy agency that succeeded the KGB. Oligarchs corresponded with her, including a billionaire who was called her “funder,” prosecutors said.
She also had a private meal with a Russian diplomat — a suspected intelligence officer who left the US in March 2018, around the same time several Russian agents were purged from the country following the poisoning of aRussian former spy in England.
Prosecutors in court Wednesday showed a photo of Butina and the Russian diplomat dining at a restaurant in DC just north of the Russian Embassy. When prosecutors revealed the photo, two men from the Russian consulate who were watching the proceeding from the front row nodded and spoke to each other quietly.
Butina also took several still-unreleased photos with former Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak at a movie screening in Washington, according to lawyers at the court hearing.
Her exchanges with Russians were “not the language of someone here just to study,” Erik Kenerson of the DC US Attorney’s Office said in court.
Aside from her alleged intelligence contacts, Butina worked most closely with Torshin, a former Russian Parliament member. At one point in their conversations that investigators collected, he “likened Butina to one member of a ring of Russian covert agents who were arrested in 2010.”
Sex and guns
“You have upstaged Anna Chapman,” Torshin allegedly wrote to her, referring to the woman who is often called a Russian honey trap and whom the US deported in a prisoner swap in 2010. Torshin applauded Butina’s public image and apparent success at building relationships following media coverage of her ties to powerful Americans in the US last year.
According to prosecutors, Butina appeared to be operating in the same mold as Chapman. People who knew her described her as smart, aggressive and attractive, qualities that helped her expand her network of American contacts. As a founder of a Russian gun rights organization, she posed in stilettos and leather while brandishing guns for a Russian GQ Magazine spread.
Butina treated the relationship with the 56-year-old American, whom CNN has identified as Paul Erickson, as “simply a necessary aspect of her activities,” prosecutors said. She secretly complained about the living situation with Erickson, prosecutors said. At one point she offered sex to another person “in exchange for a position within a special interest organization,” prosecutors said.
The Russian ‘celebrity’
Butina had been in touch with several US authorities and had been surveilled over the last year — and never tried to flee before, her lawyer said.
The “celebrity in Russia,” as Driscoll called her, had voluntarily testified for eight hours before the Senate Intelligence Committee this spring and had given them 8,000 documents. She fielded investigative requests from the Senate Finance Committee, which was looking into Torshin, Driscollsaid, and from the Federal Election Commission, which inquired about donations made to political candidates. FBI agents with guns and tactical gear also raided her house.
Amid it all, “What did she do? She put on her backpack and went back to class,” Driscoll said Wednesday.
Separately, Butina had offered to help with a federal fraud investigation into Erickson in South Dakota, her attorney told the judge. While prosecutors asserted she was trying to flee Washington in recent weeks, her lawyer said she merely wanted to move to South Dakota. Driscoll declined to comment further about the status of the investigation there. Erickson did not respond to requests for comment Wednesday.
A spokeswoman for the US attorney’s office in South Dakota declined to comment, referring all calls to the Justice Department in Washington.
Even with those developments around her, Butina was never told she was the subject of an investigation into her actions as an alleged Russian agent, the prosecutorssaid in court.
Last week, investigators became aware that Butina was planning to move money outside of the United States, her DC apartment lease was ending July 31 and she was packing boxes.
Butina and Erickson were attempting to rent a moving truck and purchase boxes four days ago. They had made a wire transfer of about $3,500 to an account in Russia days earlier, prosecutors said.
Prosecutors obtained the warrant for her arrest on Saturday and arrested her the next day.
Risk of flight
Prosecutors feared that Butina, if released from the federal government’s custody, could get in a car, “get across the border and fly back to Russia,” Kenerson said. If she were picked up in a diplomatic vehicle or entered the grounds of the Russian Embassy, US authorities would be unable to stop her or arrest her. “If the government of Russia chooses to give her the help, it can legally get her a new passport. It can legally get her out of the country,” he said.
At one point in the hearing, Driscoll consulted with two men from the Russian consulate office in the courtroom.
Magistrate Judge Deborah Robinson quickly ruled to keep Butina detained after prosecutors and defense attorneys finished their presentations Wednesday.
Butina walked quickly to the exit leading toward the courthouse’s detention area with her hands behind her back. She is scheduled to return to court for a hearing on Tuesday.
Following the hearing, Driscoll told reporters she was “not an agent” of Russia and was innocent.