Prosecutors: Our bad. Butina might not have been a Red Sparrow after all

Maria Butina and her attorneys have been in a running battle with prosecutors over whether or not she represents a flight risk and if she should be released from prison while awaiting trial. She’s charged with the rather vague offenses of conspiracy to act as an agent of a foreign government and failure to register as same. One part of the case against her involved claims that she had used weaponized sex to gain access to figures of power, similar to Jennifer Lawrence’s character in Red Sparrow. It stemmed from a text message she sent to a public relations agent several years ago. But as of Friday, prosecutors were admitting that at least that part of their case was a dud, while not retracting the rest of the case against her. As it turns out, they had a bit of trouble translating the intercepted text messages. (WaPo)

Prosecutors had argued that Butina had once offered sex in exchange “for a position with a special interest organization.”

Driscoll said the allegation was based on an erroneous interpretation of a playful text exchange between Butina and a married, longtime friend who does public relations work for a Russian gun rights group Butina founded. In the 2015 exchange, the friend texted Butina after doing her a favor by taking her car to have its insurance renewed.

“I don’t know what you owe me for this insurance[.] They put me through the wringer,” he wrote to her in Russian.

“Sex,” she responded, adding: “Thank you so much. I have nothing else at all. Not a nickel to my name.”

Later in the texting, the man replied to Butina: “Think of something!! . . . Sex with you does not interest me.”

A friend of mine who works as a translator once told me that translating facts and news reports is relatively easy. Emotional messages get a bit more tricky. But he assured me that the hardest thing in the world to translate accurately is humor. It’s not because people from other countries don’t have a sense of humor. Everyone loves to laugh all around the world. The problem is that so much humor relies on subtle twists and intentional distortions of the language. Those are the types of mental triggers which are almost always immediately obvious to native speakers who grew up immersed in the language but land with a thud for anyone who had to learn it later in life.

Does this mean that Butina wasn’t trying to influence governmental affairs in the United States or act as a foreign agent? Nope. It’s only one small pile of crumbs from a much larger cookie. But none of it conclusively proves her guilt either. What was she really up to? The government claims she was worming her way into a position of influence with Republican campaigns and the NRA, working for a Russian handler who wanted to use her to arrange meetings for influential Russians. But for all I know, she might just be somebody who’s passionate about promoting a pro-gun rights agenda. Or maybe she’s a spy. That’s what we’ll need to find out at trial. But even in the worst case scenario, it looks like she’s not weaponizing sex to promote her agenda.

The flight risk question is a bit different. Butina’s attorneys claim that her long-term romantic relationship with an American GOP consultant named Paul Erickson establishes her ties here. But if they’re going to release her they’d better have somebody assigned to follow her around. If she makes it onto a plane and out of American airspace, I rather doubt we’ll ever see her again.