The attorney for the 29-year-old Russian woman accused of trying to win influence in American political circles as a secret agent for her home country pushed back on the US government portrayal of his client as a spy in an interview televised on CNN.
Speaking Friday evening with Anderson Cooper on “Anderson Cooper 360,” Robert Driscoll, the attorney for Maria Butina, challenged several of the points made by prosecutors in court filings and a hearing this week in DC federal court, offering instead an image of an ambitious graduate student.
Butina is accused of using sex and lying on official paperwork to build a network into political organizations including the National Rifle Association in the months leading up to the 2016 election. She’s pleaded not guilty to charges of conspiracy and acting as a foreign agent.
In the interview, Cooper read Driscoll several Twitter direct messages Butina had allegedly sent her mentor, Russian politician Alexander Torshin, including one where she wrote asking for “further orders.”
“I think that, like most of the government’s case, is taken completely out of context,” Driscoll said. “Those Twitter DMs – which, by the way, most Russian spies don’t communicate by Twitter DM – which are unencrypted, there’s thousands of them. … There’s Twitter DMs about picking up toothpaste in America. There’s DMs with pictures of kids and dogs and everything else.”
“I think that for a woman who’s been under surveillance for the better part of two years, it’s pretty thin gruel to find a two-year-old … message, and say that that proves she’s a spy. Most spies do things. She didn’t seek nuclear submarine plans, she didn’t try to recruit any agents, she didn’t pay anyone any money,” Driscoll said.
Cooper retorted: “I guess the government would say, ‘Whether or not she was a good spy or not isn’t really the issue, it’s what her intent was.’ “
Butina is “doing fine under the circumstances” and is “confident in her innocence,” said Driscoll, who had visited her in jail earlier in the day.
He is trying to take her books while she remains detained “to make life a little more bearable.”
Driscoll, a former high-ranking Justice Department official, said he was first approached by Butina for representation after she was asked to interview with the Senate Intelligence Committee earlier this year. He would not say how she was paying for his services.
Butina in April voluntarily gave the Senate panel an eight-hour interview and thousands of documents.
In a court filing earlier this week, the government accused her of offering to trade sex for a spot “within a special interest organization,” a claim her lawyer called “unfortunate.”
“The government kind of dropped those allegations without any evidence,” Driscoll said. “I frankly find it kind of offensive – just because she’s an attractive woman, that’s the direction people go in.”
Driscoll also said he had never represented Butina’s long-term boyfriend, a 56-year-old South Dakota political operative named Paul Erickson who CNN has identified as an unnamed person linked to Butina’s charges in court documents.
In one court filing, prosecutors say they found a note in Erickson’s apartment with the question “How to respond to FSB offer of employment?” written in Erickson’s handwriting.
Asked about the line, which refers to the Russian spy agency, Driscoll said, “I don’t think it’s up for her to explain that.”
Driscoll also explained away a government allegation that Butina was in contact with FSB agents herself because she had an email address for one listed on her phone.
“She has hundreds of contacts. Maybe she has a friend that had an FSB extension,” Driscoll said.