David Barton (left), Eric Metaxas (right)
Yesterday, Eric Metaxas tweeted this defense of admitted Russian agent Maria Butina (see my post about her case):
It was a forced plea agreement. Totally shameful that they did this to her, threatening her with another YEAR in solitary. Wait till the whole story comes out if you care about the truth. The only good thing is her faith has gotten much stronger as a result of her sufferings. https://t.co/tOPf5OoNTn
— Eric Metaxas (@ericmetaxas) December 17, 2018
Butina was charged in July with attempting to advance Russian interests via the development of contacts within the Christian right, the National Rifle Association and the Republican party. Last week, she struck a plea agreement in which she admitted her guilt in exchange for a reduced sentence. About 97% of such cases end up in a plea agreement.
In 2015, Metaxas interviewed Butina on his radio program. With the two tweets shown above, he has come to her defense. In doing so, Metaxas has adopted the position of the Russian government over his own. The only people espousing the view that Butina was kept in or threatened with solitary confinement and forced into a plea are Russian authorities and their sympathizers. According to the Voice of America fact checking website Polygraph, Butina and her attorney said in court that she was allowed visitation and time out of her cell.
During the hearing for the change of plea Butina and her lawyers denied any physical or psychological pressure telling the judge the decision to enter the plea deal was voluntary.
Butina’s attorney Robert Driscoll told the court his client is allowed a “time out of her cell, daily activities and visitations, including those from the representatives of the Russian foreign ministry,” and that she is “doing well and competent.”
In addition to her own statement and her lawyer’s statement, we have a transcript of a pre-trial conference call where it is clear that Butina’s rights were respected. Not only did Butina get counsel about the nature of her right to a plea agreement, she had another attorney advise her when her own attorney thought there might be a conflict of interest. In the transcript, it is clear that Butina had been talking to other inmates and had been allowed to talk to others, including journalists, on monitored phone calls.
Metaxas’ tweet is interesting in that he implies he has information that isn’t public. “Wait until the whole truth comes out,” he pleads. Somehow he knows something about her faith he tells us. Has he spoken to her? He should enlighten us about his sources. The only sources I can find for the story that she has been kept in solitary confinement or threatened with any unusual treatment is Russia Today and the Russian Foreign Minister.* As noted above, those claims fly in the face of what Butina and her lawyer told the judge in the plea agreement hearing (although in November her attorney did claim she had been in solitary confinement at least some of her stay in jail. The U.S. Attorney’s office did not confirm or deny it).
Given what we have learned over the past year about Russian disinformation campaigns in the U.S., it doesn’t seem prudent or wise to trust the word of Russian authorities. While I don’t accept everything anyone tells me without examination, I reserve the highest level of skepticism for Russian claims. There is a high likelihood that these stories of torture and threats of unusual solitary confinement are aspects of an ongoing disinformation campaign the Russians have cultivated among conservative Christians (see this Christian Post article). Sadly, without providing any evidence, Metaxas is helping the Russians promote their position.
*(UPDATE: In November 2018, Butina’s attorney Robert Driscoll claimed in court that Butina had been held in solitary confinement for 22 hours at a time for a combined 67 days. There was no confirmation of this claim by the Justice Department. In her plea agreement hearing, Driscoll and client told a different story.
Having come across this media report, I am prepared to revise my position. I will wait to get more information now that Maria Butina’s gag order has been lifted and her plea deal becomes clearer. I would also like to hear from the Justice Department. When I contacted the DOJ, the answer was “no comment.”
Also in Maria Butina’s request to remove the gag order (which was successful) her attorney wrote:
Importantly, the sentencing has not yet occurred, and the government holds in its sole discretion the determination of whether the defendant has offered “substantial assistance” to other investigations and will evaluate, as will the court, the defendant’s acceptance of responsibility. Thus, the defendant and her counsel have no incentive to publicly contradict the Statement of Offense or her guilty plea or otherwise take issue with the plea, nor to discuss any aspect of possible cooperation.
In other words, Butina isn’t going to debate or dispute the governments account of her treatment or whether or not she was forced to enter a plea deal. She and her attorney already said she did so voluntarily.