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Alleged spy wanted to flee U.S. because she hated Donald Trump, not to duck arrest, say her lawyers

Former Navy nuclear engineer Jonathan Toebbe and his wife Diana are charged with trying to sell U.S. secrets to an unnamed foreign country.
The residence of Jonathan and Diana Toebbe in Annapolis, Md.
The residence of Jonathan and Diana Toebbe in Annapolis, Md.Brian Witte / AP file

Lawyers for a Maryland woman who has been jailed along with her husband on espionage-related charges have made a new request for bail, arguing her plans to flee the country stemmed from her disgust with Donald Trump — not because she feared arrest.

In court papers filed Wednesday, lawyers for Diana Toebbe introduced a text message exchange between her and her husband, Jonathan Toebbe, a former U.S. Navy nuclear engineer who is accused of trying to sell American secrets to an unnamed country. Diana Toebbe, who had been a high school teacher, is charged with helping him. They have pleaded not guilty. The couple has two young children.

In arguing she should be detained without bail while waiting for a trial, prosecutors had shown a judge a shorter version of the exchange in which Jonathan Toebbe says to his wife, “We’ve got passports, and some savings. In a real pinch we can flee,” and she responds, “Right. Let’s go sooner rather than later.”

In the new motion, defense lawyers say prosecutors turned over to them the full version of the exchange, which occurred on March 7, 2019. Their filing includes a longer excerpt, which begins with Diana Toebbe saying, “We need to get out,” and Jonathan Toebbe responding with an apparent reference to former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort: “At least he’s doing some hard time. And it’s short enough Trump likely (sic) won’t try to pardon him — he’s clearly already sold Mueller whatever he had.”

At the time, Manafort was facing criminal charges and appeared to be cooperating with special counsel Robert Mueller. Manafort was convicted, stopped cooperating, and ultimately was pardoned by Trump.

The Toebbes' exchange also contains a reference to French President Emmanuel Macron, which is notable because of speculation that the unnamed country to which the Toebbe’s had offered nuclear submarine secrets could be France. U.S. officials have told NBC News it’s not France, but they have declined to name the country.

The exchange continued this way, according to the court document:

DT: We need to get out 

JT: *sigh* where? To do what? 

DT: To anywhere. To do something else 

DT: To teach in international schools 

DT: To take Macron up on his offer to harbor scientific refugees 

JT: Biden/Warren will curb stomp Trump/Pence. 


DT: Hilary (sic) was going to curb stomp trump. I’m done 

JT: Baby, I don’t get what’s triggering this now — Manafort’s going away. The Mueller report is coming Real Soon™. 

DT: It’s been too long. Nothing has changed. He’s still in power. 

JT: Nothing in government moves that fast — believe me, I speak from personal experience. 

DT: Manafort got a slap on the wrist. It’s a signal that the entire system is rigged 

JT: We’ve got passports, and some savings. In a real pinch we can flee quickly. 

DT: Right. Let’s go sooner than later

Jonathan Toebbe then replied that he doesn’t “want to go back to making $50k a year. Especially not in a country where we don’t know the language,” and the conversation turns to the couple’s concerns over money.

Jonathan Toebbe said his nuclear engineering degree “is basically worthless overseas,” because the commercial nuclear industry is “dead,” but Diana Toebbe replies, “I cannot believe that the two of us wouldn’t be welcomed and rewarded by a foreign govt.”

The court document adds that Diana Toebbe “has reason to believe that her husband has also informed the government that she was not involved in his alleged scheme to sell classified information.”

After her detention hearing, the document says, Diana Toebbe’s father received a letter from her husband, saying: “I have high hopes that Diana will ultimately be exonerated.”

Prosecutors have not yet responded to the filing, but in court they argued that Diana Toebbe acted as a lookout while her husband left classified material for a person he thought was a foreign agent.

They point out that Jonathan Toebbe also wrote in a message to the person he thought was his handler — who was actually an FBI agent— that “there is only one other person with knowledge” of their arrangement. That person, the government alleges, was Diana Toebbe.

Prosecutors said Jonathan Toebbe, who worked on the Navy’s nuclear propulsion program, mailed a package of classified information in April 2020 to representatives of a foreign country, offering to reveal many more secrets in exchange for up to $5 million in cryptocurrency.

The U.S. government learned about the approach — the implication in court documents is the country alerted them, but that is not entirely clear — and the FBI reached out to Toebbe, pretending to be from the country he contacted. 

Prosecutors said he at first wanted to deal strictly by email but later agreed to store the data on SD cards, which he would leave at designated “dead drop” locations.

Investigators said he concealed the cards in half a peanut butter sandwich, a chewing gum package and a sealed Band-Aid wrapper, making the drops in June, July, August and October. Court documents said the cards included designs for the Navy’s Virginia-class submarines, nuclear-powered fast-attack vessels incorporating stealth technology that are able to fire cruise missiles.

The couple faces up to life in prison if convicted.