Attorneys for a Russian woman accused of seeking to infiltrate the National Rifle Association and other American conservative groups for the Russian government asked a federal judge Thursday to dismiss charges against her as unconstitutional.
Lawyers for Maria Butina, 29, argued that a law that bars acting in the United States as an unregistered agent of a foreign government — one of two counts against Butina — is unconstitutionally vague and would criminalize “a massive amount of conduct that is other wise protected and legal” by foreign nationals, including free speech.
In a 28-page filing Thursday, Butina attorneys Robert N. Driscoll and Alfred D. Carry said the U.S. statute makes it illegal to act on behalf of a foreign government official but fails to define what types of acts are covered or who qualifies as an official, and in what capacity.
“If fantasizing about a future career in diplomacy and jabbering about personal events and peacebuilding aspirations with others like a friend and mentor who happens to be an officer from some foreign government agency . . . makes one a foreign agent, then scores of people are unknowingly violating this statute,” Butina’s lawyers wrote in characterizing her written communications and reports.
The attorneys said a second charge of conspiring to act as an agent of a foreign government was duplicative and would prejudice potential jurors by charging Butina with two crimes for the same acts. At the least, they wrote, “The court should compel the government to elect between the multiple counts and dismiss the other,” they wrote.
A spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office of the District, which is prosecuting the case, declined to comment beyond court filings. Prosecutors have until Nov. 30 to respond to the dismissal motion.
Butina pleaded not guilty after being indicted July 17. Her defense said she was merely networking to develop relationships with Americans.
U.S. District Judge Tanya S. Chutkan has ordered Butina held without bond as a flight risk.
Butina is accused of trying to cultivate “back-channel” relationships with the Republican Party’s leading 2016 presidential candidates and develop close ties to the NRA to provide Russian officials “with the best access to and influence over” the party.
Butina allegedly was assisted by Paul Erickson, a South Dakota-based Republican consultant she met in Moscow in 2013 and with whom she has been romantically linked.
Erickson helped introduce Butina to influential political figures and who sought to organize a meeting between then-candidate Donald Trump and Alexander Torshin, Butina’s colleague and a Russian central banker, at a May 2016 NRA convention.
Prosecutors alleged that Torshin coordinated Butina’s activities, writing that at his direction, she drafted language to persuade the Russian Foreign Ministry to let him attend the NRA meeting as a “unique opportunity” to network with Trump and his entourage.
The campaign declined a request by Erickson to have Trump meet Torshin, but Torshin and Butina briefly chatted with Donald Trump Jr. at a dinner at the convention, Trump Jr. has said.
Prosecutors in September argued that Moscow’s vehement protests of her case — including six consular visits to Butina in jail, four diplomatic notes, two personal complaints by Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and the official Kremlin Twitter account placing Butina’s face as its avatar — “confirmed her relationship with, and value to, her own government.”
However, in their filing Thursday, Butina’s attorneys argued that the U.S. Constitution’s protections extend to noncitizens, including a prohibition against laws that are overly broad in their limits or chilling of free speech.
They said the law could sweep in unregistered foreign journalists who cover an event in the United States at the direction of their foreign state-controlled news agency; college students dating the children of foreign diplomats who attend a protest of U.S. government actions, such as the separation of migrant families at the U.S.-Mexico border, at the diplomat’s suggestion; or any unregistered foreign visitors who asked a government leader in their own country for suggestions to improve their participation in U.S. civic life.
Butina spent two years at American University in the global security program at the School of International Service and received a master’s degree in May.
“Political speech is at the heart of the First Amendment; and yet . . . this student would be guilty even if he or she personally agreed with the purpose of the rally,” or if the visitor “authored the note as instructed out of a sincere, personal desire for change and betterment,” Butina’s attorneys wrote.