Lover or cover? The romance at the heart of an alleged Russian influence operation

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(NEW YORK) — Maria Butina and Paul Erickson have encountered several challenges that have surely put their relationship to the test.

Long distances. Money problems. Meeting the prospective in-laws. And now a federal investigation. A sudden arrest. And detention while Butina awaits a trial on charges of acting as a foreign agent that threatens to thrust their private lives into public view.

But Butina’s attorney, Robert Driscoll, says that even in the face of government allegations that Butina, a 29-year-old Russian gun-rights activist, has ensnared Erickson, a 56-year-old conservative political operative, in a “duplicitous relationship,” using him for cover and connections as she developed an influence operation designed to “advance the agenda of the Russian Federation,” the couple, as far as he can tell, remains “strong.”

In fact, Driscoll says, Butina told him Erickson even visited her in jail on Saturday.

In an interview with ABC News last week, which will air Tuesday on Good Morning America, Driscoll offered an array of fresh details about the five-year relationship at the crux of the government’s case against Butina and pushed back against the notion that his client was looking for something other than love and affection from Erickson.

“I think in some ways it’s a classic love story,” Driscoll said. “I think [reporters] are filling in a lot of the gaps with a lot of spy novels.”

Erickson did not respond to repeated messages seeking comment. Erickson has not been accused of any wrongdoing and it remains unclear if he could face any charges in connection to Butina’s alleged conspiracy. Several messages left at the office of the attorney said to be representing Erickson were not returned. A spokesperson for the National Rifle Association, where Erickson had deep ties to high-ranking officials, did not respond to a request for comment.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office declined to comment, though on Thursday prosecutors filed a letter to the court accusing Driscoll of violating local rules by continuing to discuss the case with the media despite a previous warning from the judge.

Butina met Erickson in Moscow in 2013, Driscoll told ABC News. Erickson had traveled there with then-NRA President David Keene to meet with Butina, the young leader of a nascent Russian gun-rights group called “The Right to Bear Arms.”

Their romantic relationship began shortly thereafter on New Year’s Eve in Tel Aviv. Where the government sees a “covert Russian agent” with ties to the Russian intelligence services seizing an opportunity to infiltrate a powerful American political organization, Driscoll sees only a pair of “ambitious” people who “hit it off” over their “similar interests.”

Butina made frequent trips to the United States in the ensuing years, becoming a fixture at various conservative conferences and conventions where Erickson allegedly helped her make inroads with America’s political elite. In August 2016, she moved to Washington, D.C. on a student visa to study international relations at American University.

And they often traveled together, not only to centers of power like Washington, D.C. and Moscow, but also to their respective hometowns in South Dakota and Siberia to meet each other’s families. When Erickson’s mother died last year, Driscoll said, Butina attended the funeral.

They even booked a Disney Cruise in 2014 and took a jaunt to Disney World in 2016. Butina’s fascination with Disney ran so deep, Driscoll said, that the couple once recorded a duet and accompanying music video in a Moscow music studio as a birthday present for Erickson that showed the couple gazing adoringly into each other’s eyes as they sang the title track from “Beauty and the Beast.”

“I think you also look at this and say, ‘This looks pretty legitimate,’” Driscoll said of the video, which was obtained exclusively by ABC News. “At least I do. Maybe I’m a sucker for romance.”

For Driscoll, this is all evidence that Butina and Erickson, despite the government’s claims to the contrary, are engaged in a mutual and genuine cross-cultural romance.

“They’ve done all the things you would expect in kind of a significant long-term relationship,” Driscoll said.

The problem is that, according to the government, they’ve done much more than that.

The government has alleged that an unnamed “U.S. Person 1,” which sources have identified as Erickson, “worked with Butina to arrange introductions to U.S. persons having influence in American politics,” including high-ranking members of the NRA and organizers of the National Prayer Breakfast, that would ultimately give her a surprising level of access to conservative politicians, including — in one memorable interaction captured on video — to a future president.

It would appear that, even as Erickson was helping Butina forge those connections, he may have been aware of the political implications.

“Unrelated to specific presidential campaigns,” Erickson wrote in an October 2016 email to an acquaintance that was later obtained by the FBI, “I’ve been involved in securing a VERY private line of communication between the Kremlin and key [unnamed political party] leaders through, of all conduits, the [unnamed gun-rights organization].”

And during an FBI raid of Erickson’s South Dakota home, investigators discovered a handwritten note suggesting Erickson may have been aware of a possible job offer from Russian intelligence services: “How to respond to FSB offer of employment?” Erickson scratched, an apparent reference to the Russian equivalent of the CIA.

Even Driscoll didn’t have an explanation for the note.

“Whatever Paul wrote,” Driscoll said, “Paul’s the one who’s gonna have to explain.”

Driscoll described Butina as a promising graduate student whose career has been derailed by this case, but prosecutors claim that was just a “cover while she continued to work on behalf the Russian Official,” which based on the description appears to be Alexander Torshin, deputy governor of the Russian Central Bank and a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Indeed, it was her longtime mentor and alleged handler Torshin, ABC News has learned, who wrote some of her recommendations for graduate school.

“She meets and charms world leaders effortlessly and shall greet her fellow students with equal ease,” Torshin wrote of Butina in a letter of recommendation, a copy of which can be read below, to Columbia University’s Graduate School of Arts & Sciences, one of the seven graduate schools to which she applied. “Thank you for considering her — please teach her and return her home ready for the next chapter in Russian / U.S. relations.”

Erickson allegedly helped her maintain that cover. He supported her financially, telling McClatchy DC he established a South Dakota-based company Bridges LLC with Butina in order to help defray her educational expenses, and according to court filings, assisted with her coursework “by editing papers and answering exam questions.”

Meanwhile, prosecutors claim, Butina “appear[ed] to treat [her relationship with Erickson] as simply a necessary aspect of her activities.” She privately expressed “disdain” for continuing to live with him, prosecutors claim, and even “offered another individual … sex in exchange for a position within a special interest organization.”

Of all the government’s accusations, Driscoll says that claim angered and upset Butina the most.

“That’s just simply not true,” he said, calling the widespread portrayal of her as a kind of “Red Sparrow” both “unfortunate” and “sexist.”

“I think anyone would be upset,” Driscoll added. “The government, for lack of a better term, called her a whore. It’s not very nice to have happen to you in open court.”

On Friday, Driscoll slammed the government’s case against Butina in a motion filed to the court, calling it “a war drum based on pure fiction” and accusing prosecutors of taking what was “clearly a joke” out of context in order to smear his client as a “Kremlin-trained seductress.”

“The only evidence the government relied on for its explosive claim was an excerpt from an innocuous three-year-old text exchange sent in Russia between Ms. Butina and DK, her longtime friend, assistant, and public relations man for The Right to Bear Arms gun rights group that she founded,” the filing reads. “DK” is not identified.

As she awaits trial, Butina remains in jail in Alexandria, Virginia. She is due back in court on Sept. 10. Butina’s future – and the future of her relationship with Erickson – are, to say the least, uncertain.

Even if Butina prevails, Driscoll said, her visa could be revoked, putting yet another obstacle between her and Erickson.

“If she gets out, they’ll cross that bridge when they get to it,” Driscoll said. “And that’s a problem I would love for her to have.”

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