Pistol-Packin’ Butina: Feds Parlay A Weak Case Into An 18-Month Sentence

The case against Mariia Butina for being a Russian spy was never strong.   She never worked directly for the Kremlin, knew of no secret codes or safe houses, and didn’t engaged in covert activity.  And so the feds ended up charging her with the rather tame offense of failing to register as a foreign agent. 

The Siberian-born gun-rights activist, an oxymoron if there ever was one since gun owners in Russia have no rights, made her debut as a bit player in the Russia scandal way back in 2013, five adventure-filled years before her arrest in July 2018 in Washington, D.C. as she was literally packing her bags to skip town. 

In the latest chapter in that odyssey, U.S. District Judge Tanya S. Chutkan sentenced the 30-year-old Butina to 18 months in prison on Friday after she admitted last December to working as an undeclared agent of a foreign government.  She did not admit and was not charged with espionage, although a former FBI agent said that Butina’s conduct had the earmarks of a “spot and assess” operation, meaning that she was passing information along that the Russian government could later use to determine potential targets for intelligence recruitment.   

Butina will be credited for more than nine months served and deported to Russia upon her release under terms worked out by the U.S. attorney’s office for the District of Columbia and the Justice Department’s national security division, which handled the case instead of oversubscribed Special Counsel Robert Mueller, whose prosecutors did conduct a brief interview with her. 

In court before she learned her sentence, Butina said “ignorance of the law is not an excuse, in the United States or in Russia, and so I humbly request forgiveness.” 

“The United States has always been kind to me, and though it was not my intention to harm the American people, I did that by not notifying the Attorney General of my actions. I deeply regret these events,” said Butina, who was dressed in a green prison uniform and spoke with emotion.  “Please accept my apology and allow me to begin again.” 

While Butina’s actions “might” have been legal had she disclosed that she was working as an agent for the Russian government, it was precisely because she did not that they “were so dangerous and constituted a threat to our democracy,” Chutkan said, because it prevented the U.S. government and others from recognizing what she was doing or taking actions in response. 

It was in 2013 that Butina first cozied up to Republican operative Paul Erickson, a former American Conservative Union board member and associate of David Keene, then president of America’s largest and most powerful terrorist organization, the National Rifle Association.  (Don’t get me wrong.  The NRA was perfectly fine when its mission was teaching gun safety, but as it grew more wealthy and powerful, its mission became making it perfectly legal for nuts with mass murder in their hearts to buy combat-grade automatic weapons designed to inflict maximum carnage.  At that it has been catastrophically successful.)  

Anyhow, Butina was a protégé of Alexandr Torshin, once a member of the Russian parliament and later a chief deputy of its central bank and himself a protégé of Vladimir Putin.  Torshin, whom Butina acknowledged to prosecutors she took orders from, had been visiting heartland cities in the U.S. regularly since 2009 in a clandestine effort to advance Moscow’s long-term objectives by establishing common political interests with American conservatives, including gun lovers.  

That act apparently was getting a little stale, so in 2014 Butina kind of took over for Torshin and began “dating” Erickson.  Then in 2016, he became her sugar daddy when he set up an LLC that he claimed was for Butina’s tuition at American University in Washington.  

In February 2016, Torshin tweeted that Butina was now in the U.S. and said “She writes me that D. Trump (NRA member) is ready for cooperation with Russia.”   

When not hitting the books, Butina squeezed in a meeting with Dana Rohrabacher, the slavishly pro-Putin U.S. representative from California, and initiated a series of contacts with J.D. Gordon, who was the Trump campaign’s director of national security and at the time a big wheel in Trump’s transition team.  This included taking him to a Styx concert.  

On the morning after Trump’s surprise victory, Butina contacted Torshin, saying “I’m going to sleep.  It’s 3 am here.  I am ready for further orders.”  It is not known if those orders included Butina throwing a costume party for her birthday a week later at trendy Cafe Deluxe in Washington where she dressed as Empress Alexandra while Erickson came as Rasputin.  She bragged to partygoers that she had been “part of the Trump campaign’s communications with Russia.”  (You really can’t make this stuff up.)  

At this point, Butina might as well begin wearing a tiara with the words “Russian agent” in flashing neon lights, and indeed agents for the Justice Department’s national security office, working with the U.S. Attorney’s office for Washington, were now wise to her and monitoring her contacts with visiting Russians with dodgy backgrounds, as well as her ongoing romance with Erickson.    

In the end, Butina’s act as Natashia to Torshin’s Boris turns out to have been as hapless as those wonderful animated characters from Rocky and Bullwinkle  

Butina was arrested on July 15, 2018 as she prepared to head home.  Held without bail in a federal lockup around the corner from the White House, she become the first Russian national convicted of seeking to influence U.S. policy in the run-up and through the 2016 election.   

In doing so, Butina admitted as part of a plea deal that she and “U.S. Person 1” (Erickson) “agreed and conspired, with a senior Russian government official” (Torshin) to act as a Russian agent.  

The plea deal included blabbing about the NRA’s reported but as yet unproven role as a conduit between Russia and the Trump campaign, which directly and indirectly received over $30 million from the gun group and may have illegally coordinated campaign ad buys with it, in return for the possibility of less prison time.  

I continue to be mindblown at the extraordinary number of crooks and grifters Trump has sucked into his orbit whose moral compasses are badly broken.  One by one, they’re finally going down.  If there is a God, that also will include the people who turned the NRA into a killing machine.

Editor’s Note: This essay originally appeared on April 27, 2019 on Kiko’s House, a website featuring commentary by journalist and author, Shaun Mullen.  It was reproduced here with the consent of Mr. Mullen.

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