The alleged Russian spy Maria Butina said she planned to use members of Donald Trump’s entourage to shape his views on Russia shortly before meeting one of Trump’s sons during the 2016 election campaign, prosecutors have alleged.
But the prosecutors also conceded in a filing to court late on Friday that they may have wrongly accused Butina of offering sex in return for a job, after her attorneys protested against the government’s portrayal of her as a “Red Sparrow” seductress.
The 29-year-old is in jail awaiting trial on charges that she worked to infiltrate conservative politics via the National Rifle Association (NRA) as part of a plan to influence the US government. She has pleaded not guilty and denies any wrongdoing.
Prosecutors said in their new filing that on 23 April 2016, Butina sent a note to Alexander Torshin, a Russian government official accused of supervising her operation, about the possibility of meeting Trump at the NRA convention in Louisville, Kentucky, the following month.
“Important in these circumstances are those contacts with the candidate and his entourage that will help form [Trump’s] correct view of Russian-American relations,” Butina is said to have written. “Attending the general assembly of the [NRA] in May 2016 fully provides this unique opportunity.”
Butina was photographed with Donald Trump Jr, a senior campaign adviser, during an event at the convention in Louisville. “All available evidence” indicates that she failed to meet Donald Trump himself, prosecutors said.
The new court filing also contained a rare concession from the prosecutors, who recently came under fire from Butina’s attorneys after alleging she offered a man sex in return for a job at an activist group.
This was cited by prosecutors in an attempt to paint Butina’s romantic relationship with Paul Erickson, a 56-year-old Republican operative, as a sham. Butina’s attorney said last month the government misused a text message in which Butina joked she owed a friend sex for having her car insurance renewed.
The government “gratuitously and falsely” portrayed Butina’s remarks as part of a “sexist smear”, the attorney, Robert Driscoll, wrote in a court filing.
On the 19th page of Friday’s 22-page filing, prosecutors said that “even granting that the government’s understanding of this particular text conversation was mistaken”, Butina did not have strong enough ties to the US to ensure that she would not flee if released on bail.
Driscoll told the Guardian the government’s admission undermined its claim that Butina’s relationship with Erickson was not legitimate – and struck at the heart of her depiction in media accounts as a spy who used sex to gain access to influential politicians and NRA leaders.
“The government has walked away from that allegation and my hope is that the walk-back will get as much coverage as their initial allegation,” Driscoll said.
He added: “The reality is, Paul is her boyfriend.”
Butina is being prosecuted by the US attorney’s office in Washington DC rather than the office of special counsel Robert Mueller, which is investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election campaign and links to Trump’s campaign. A person familiar with the matter said neither Mueller nor his team have expressed interest in interviewing Butina, or in her case generally.
The government’s new court filing said that on 21 June 2016, Torshin commissioned Butina to write a report on “the situation” regarding Trump and his election prospects. After receiving it, Torshin asked if he could pass the report to Russia’s foreign ministry, according to prosecutors. Butina responded: “That would be a great honor!”
Driscoll insisted that Butina did not initiate the proposed interaction with then candidate Trump. The possible meeting, he said, was proposed by Johnny Yenason, a Pennsylvania businessman who has said he was friends with Butina and Torshin but never discussed the 2016 election with them.
Butina met Yenason at a prayer breakfast in Moscow and he urged her to try to contact Trump, according to Driscoll, who said: “That proposal to meet Trump was not suggested by Torshin or Maria.”
Driscoll also criticised assertions by prosecutors that visits paid to Butina in jail by Russian officials were somehow proof of her status as an alleged Russian agent.
The attorney said it was normal for officials to visit their citizens held in foreign prisons to check on their wellbeing, noting that US consuls similarly visit Americans who are held overseas.