The NRA Is Still Dodging Questions on Its Russia Connection
With Trump about to address the NRA’s convention, the group still isn’t giving straight answers.
RUSS CHOMAMAY. 3, 2018 6:00 AM
The night before President Donald Trump spoke at the 2016 National Rifle Association convention, his eldest son met with a Russian politician who had been pitched to the Trump campaign as an “emissary” of Vladimir Putin who could set up a back channel to the Kremlin. Since then, that Russian official, Alexander Torshin, a former deputy governor of the Russian central bank who is reported to be under investigation for possibly funneling money to the NRA, has bragged about his relationship with the NRA, and the gun group has reluctantly acknowledged that it has received money from Russian sources. But with Trump set to address this year’s NRA convention this weekend, there remain few clear answers about the group’s ties to Russian funders—in part because the organization has sidestepped queries from Congress about its Russian connections.
The primary question is how much money the NRA has accepted from Russians. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) has posed the question to the NRA several times, and now the Federal Election Commission is asking as well—and the FBI may be, too. Politicians and political action committees can’t accept money from a foreign government, but a nonprofit like the NRA can, as long as the money is kept away from any political activity the group undertakes. The information the NRA has provided to Wyden has clarified little.
In a February letter to the NRA, Wyden asked for details on its financial connections to Russia; specifically, how much money the NRA’s political arm has accepted from Russian sources, and what internal controls the group has in place to ensure no foreign money is spent on American elections.
The group’s response did little more than restate the question. “As a longstanding policy to comply with federal election law, the NRA and its related entities do not accept funds from foreign persons or entities in connection with the United States elections,” the NRA’s general counsel, John Frazier, replied. Frazier said that most of the group’s donations come from small donors, but “significant” donations are “vetted,” though he provided no details on how.
In a follow-up letter in March, Wyden tried again, adding questions about Torshin’s relationship to the NRA and citing Torshin’s involvement with a trip made by an NRA delegation to Russia in 2015. Among the NRA officials on that trip was Joe Gregory, who chaired the group’s “Golden Ring of Freedom” program, which awards special status to donors who have given the NRA at least $1 million. Wyden asked whether any Russians were Golden Ring participants.
In a testy response, the NRA acknowledged to Wyden, “While we do receive some contributions from foreign individuals and entities, these contributions are made directly to the NRA for lawful purposes.” The group also stated, “For the relevant time period (2015-2016), we have found no significant contributions to any NRA entities sent from any foreign address or drawn on any foreign financial institution.” Wyden had not asked about that particular time period.
After yet another letter from Wyden, the NRA finally conceded in early April that it had, in fact, received $2,500 or more from at least 23 individuals who were Russian or living in Russia. The group said these donations were made for a variety of purposes.
In the same letter, the NRA made clear that it had no interest in further discussing donations from Russian sources. “We believe this and our previous letters have provided enough information to address any legitimate concerns about these issues,” wrote Frazier, the group’s lawyer. “Therefore, given the extraordinarily time-consuming and burdensome nature of your requests, we must respectfully decline to engage in this beyond the clear answer we have already provided.”
The NRA has one of the most sophisticated and successful fundraising operations of any nonprofit. In 2016, it hauled in $266 million.
The NRA has denied that the FBI is investigating its Russian connections. But on the eve of its convention, the NRA appears to be gearing up to deal with a more aggressive interrogator than Wyden. According to CNN, the group’s attorneys have begun setting aside years of documents relating to Torshin, a move that sources told CNN could be simple due diligence, but also appeared to be a sign that the gun group is “bracing” for a full-on investigation.
https://www.motherjones.com/politics/20 ... onnection/
Inside the Decade-Long Russian Campaign to Infiltrate the NRA and Help Elect Trump
Femme fatales, lavish Moscow parties and dark money – how Russia worked the National Rifle Association
April 2, 2018
Illustration by Victor Juhasz for Rolling Stone
In November 2013, the president of the National Rifle Association, David Keene, was introduced as an honored guest at the conference of the Right to Bear Arms, a gun lobby in Moscow. "There are no peoples that are more alike than Americans and Russians," Keene said. "We're hunters. We're shooters. We value the same kinds of things." Keene underscored his friendship with Alexander Torshin, a top politician in the ruling party of Vladimir Putin; for the past three years, Keene said, "I've hosted your senator Alexander Torshin at the National Rifle Association's annual meetings." In words that now carry a darker connotation, Keene insisted, "We need to work together."
Torshin, now 64, is a roly-poly politician, perhaps five feet six, with thick glasses and a passion for borscht – "like medicine!" he once tweeted. A member of Putin's right-wing United Russia party, he served in the Russian senate for more than a decade, forging close ties to Russia's internal security service, the FSB, which awarded him a medal in 2016. His embrace of Keene, says Steven Hall, who served as chief of Russian operations for the CIA until 2015, was about more than forging "an international brotherhood of the NRA."
As part of Putin's "active measures," Hall says, Russia has attempted to influence right-wing and populist factions abroad, preaching unity around social conservatism: "'We're both religious-based countries – we have the Orthodox Church that's a big deal for us.' " The Russians, Hall believes, "made a natural transition in the United States to the NRA"; over time Putin became determined to exploit the American gun lobby "and decided Mr. Torshin is going to be the guy to do it for him."
Keene proved an easy mark. A career lobbyist who advised presidential candidates from Ronald Reagan to Mitt Romney, he was a longtime chair of the American Conservative Union, which organizes the annual CPAC convention. NRA board member Grover Norquist has praised Keene as "a conservative Forrest Gump" who's been at "the center of all things conservative for decades." Keene, with a sweep of white hair, owlish glasses and a patrician bearing, might move in cutthroat political circles, but friends say his personality runs against type. "He's like a teddy bear," says Alan Gottlieb, founder of the Second Amendment Foundation, who has known Keene for decades. "He's not hard-edged at all. He's a gentleman." (Keene did not respond to multiple interview requests.)
Torshin and Keene forged a quick friendship. "Just a brief note to let you know just how much I enjoyed meeting in Pittsburgh during the NRA annual meeting," Keene wrote in a 2011 letter later obtained by anti-corruption activists in Russia. Extending a personal invitation to the following year's event, Keene added, "If there is anything any of us can do to help you in your endeavors . . . please don't hesitate to let us know."
Torshin's "endeavors" included a plan to back a gun-rights group in Moscow. "We will start organizing our own Russian NRA," Torshin soon tweeted. The NRA president seemed flattered, seeing Torshin as a powerful Russian eager to build a gun organization that mirrored his own, and even secured a Russian translation of the NRA charter.
But Russia experts believe Torshin's interest in U.S. gun culture masked a dark, ulterior motive. "It's all a big charade, basically," Glenn Simpson, founder of the research firm behind the infamous Steele Dossier, testified to the House Intelligence Committee. Much of what passes for civil society in modern Russia is, in fact, controlled by Putin. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee published a January 2018 report on "Putin's Asymmetric Assault on Democracy," which describes how the Kremlin has "sought to co-opt civil society by 'devot[ing] massive resources to the creation and activities of state-sponsored and state-controlled NGOs."
Some of these faux grassroots groups buttress the Kremlin's domestic agenda. Others are projections of Putin's foreign policy. Sen. Ben Cardin, the ranking Democrat on the committee, says it is common for Russian groups that "appear to be independent" but are "really Putin groups" to build relationships with civic groups in Western democracies, like the NRA – "to have tentacles," Cardin says, "to try and influence public opinion here in the United States. It is certainly part of Putin's MO."
Hall agrees. "The idea of private gun ownership is anathema to Putin," he says. "So then the question is, 'Why?' " Why was a pro-gun campaign being hatched by a leader in Putin's own party? The answer, according to Hall, is that Putin was baiting a trap. "He's reaching out to attract the NRA, specifically, over to Russia."
The FBI is now investigating whether Torshin, the current deputy governor of the Russian central bank, illegally funneled cash to the NRA to support the election of Donald Trump, according to a report by McClatchy that has sparked a probe by the Federal Elections Commission. Moscow's NRA connections have also become a focus of House and Senate Russia investigators. In his House testimony, made public in January, Simpson pointed to "Russian banker-slash-Duma-member-slash-Mafia-leader" Torshin and his "suspicious" protégé, a young gun activist named Marina Butina. "It appears the Russians," Simpson said, "infiltrated the NRA."
The NRA spent an unprecedented $30 million to install Trump in the White House. Putin has a long track record of illegally financing nationalist opposition groups in the West. If the Kremlin's NRA outreach culminated in pumping vast sums into the group's coffers, America's lax campaign-finance regulations would have posed no obstacle. "There are so many ways that a group like the NRA could be used to channel Russian money into a race, it's shocking," says Robert Maguire, who investigates "dark money" for the Center for Responsive Politics. In a letter to Congress, the NRA has denied wrongdoing; it has not denied accepting Russian money.
The notion that the flag-waving NRA of Eddie Eagle has allied itself with the Russian bear, and the government of former KGB colonel Vladimir Putin, can be hard to fathom. But an investigation by Rolling Stone establishes deeper ties between the NRA and Russia than previously reported. The record reveals this union was the product of a sophisticated Russian influence campaign nearly a decade in the making. By November 2016, Torshin greeted Trump's election victory as a foregone conclusion, specifically pointing to his and the president-elect's joint connection to the NRA. "This striking personality has fascinated me for a long time," he tweeted, in Russian. "Was sure of his victory."
By Torshin's own account, his affiliation with the American gun lobby began around 2010, when he became a member of the NRA. His passion for firearms is genuine; Torshin counted Gen. Mikhail Kalashnikov, the inventor of the AK-47, as a friend, and has tweeted, "I love guns." Nearly as soon as Torshin joined the NRA, he began targeting the gun lobby's leadership, leaning on a friend, a Nashville lawyer named G. Kline Preston IV. "I've probably known him 10 years," Preston says of Torshin. "He's one of the finest people I know. He's a very capable, intelligent, honest man, a very devout Orthodox Christian, very serious about his faith."
Preston is a jovial Russophile. He studied abroad in Soviet Leningrad in the late Eighties on his way to an undergraduate degree in Russian language and literature. He has moonlighted as a vodka importer and a trader on the post-Soviet stock exchange. In 2006, Preston opened a sister law office in St. Petersburg, where his practice areas included "lobbying members of government bodies in the United States and the Russian Federation." Torshin met Preston through mutual Russian contacts, and he invited the lawyer to speak to the Russian senate in 2009. "I'm very pro-Putin, honestly," Preston says in a rich Southern drawl. "He's been fantastic for Russia."
Toshin (center) with Putin at an awards ceremony in Moscow, 2011.
Toshin (center) with Putin at an awards ceremony in Moscow in 2011. Konstantin Zavrazhin/Getty Images
A campaign banner from Putin's 2012 election hangs in Preston's Nashville office, also decorated with Russian nesting dolls of the Trump family. Preston believes Russia shares the values of the American South, but his own views are reactionary. He calls the Civil War "the War for Southern Independence"; the Confederate Constitution "an improvement"; and has blasted Lincoln as "a terrorist and a war criminal!" In 2013, he posted a meme on Twitter of Barack Obama looking unmanly in comparison to the buff, shirtless Russian leader. Preston wrote, "As long as U.S. is electing foreign-born presidents, I propose Vladimir [Vladimirovich] Putin."
The Nashville lawyer saw nothing odd about his Russian friend's desire to meet the NRA president: "Torshin is a gun enthusiast," he says. And although Preston attends the annual NRA meetings, he didn't know Keene personally. "I just called him out of the blue," Preston says. "I told him, 'Hey, I got a friend who is interested in the NRA, gun rights, that kind of stuff. Happens to be a Russian senator.' "
The NRA welcomed the outreach. "Russia's essentially a gun-free zone since Bolsheviks took power," Preston explains. (Rifles and shotguns are commonly owned; handguns are tightly restricted.) "You have Russian politicians and other citizens working to change that. Senator Torshin is one of those people." He adds, "The obvious place to look, to see a successful gun-rights organization, is the United States and the NRA."
Speaking on the phone from Tennessee and Moscow, where he traveled in March to act as an observer of the presidential election of Putin – which independent monitors have called "a sham" – Preston flatly denies that his Russian friends were meddling in the U.S. election. "These allegations are laughable," he says. "I have no knowledge of it, never saw any indications. It's a red herring, man. Like when we were kids, they sent us on snipe hunts – a bird that doesn't exist."
But as early as 2012, when Torshin attended the NRA convention as a "VIP" guest of "the NRA President," his fascination with U.S. gun culture was twinned with an interest in presidential politics. That November, he was in Nashville as an observer of the contest between Obama and Romney. "I set that up," says Preston, but Torshin's bona fides with the rifle association smoothed his path: "My NRA card," he boasted on Twitter, "opened the doors to any polling stations for me." Torshin inspected electronic voting machines and election queues. Spotting posters of Obama hanging in one precinct – a violation of election norms – "Torshin, I think, snapped pictures and sent them to Moscow immediately," Preston recalls.
Torshin also traveled to D.C., making two intriguing stops: one at the headquarters of the NRA, the other at the residence of Sergey Kislyak, the Russian ambassador to the United States whose frequent contacts with Trump campaign figures have raised red flags with investigators.
Over the next year, Torshin's access and influence in the NRA continued to grow. At the 2013 convention in Houston, Gottlieb recalls, Torshin was presented with the gift of a rifle. "3 thousand delegates of the NRA Congress, greeted me with an ovation!" Torshin tweeted. He also snapped photos of a ceremony for the "Golden Ring of Freedom," the NRA's high society for million-dollar lifetime donors, many of them gun executives. The group breaks bread in golden dinner jackets with elaborate crests embroidered on the breast pockets. They ring a replica of the Liberty Bell.
Outside the NRA bubble, however, senator Torshin was becoming infamous. Spanish authorities reportedly sought to arrest him at a 2013 birthday party for Alexander Romanov, a member of the Russian Taganskaya mob, now serving prison time for laundering money through real estate on the Spanish island of Mallorca. According to judicial documents reviewed by El Pais, Romanov referred to Torshin as "boss" and "godfather" on intercepted phone calls; Spain suspected Torshin had laundered 14 million euros through the purchase of a hotel on the island.
The birthday sting was foiled when Torshin didn't show up to the island. Charges were never filed. "Calling on Russia to arrest him would have been useless because Russia does not cooperate," a judicial source told El Pais. In a statement to the paper, Torshin denied any wrongdoing, insisting he'd never done business with Romanov or owned Spanish real estate. Torshin has acknowledged only social connections to the mobster; for example, he is the godfather of Romanov's teenage son. (Torshin did not respond to interview requests.)
In Moscow, Torshin had partnered with Marina Butina, who would become the face of gun rights in Russia. She gained national prominence in 2011, competing in the Youth Primaries of the Young Guard of United Russia – a political competition sponsored by the Kremlin to cultivate fresh political talent. Tall and poised, with a spiky brown haircut, Butina, then 22, had grown up with guns, learning to hunt with her father in her home region of Altai, in southern Siberia. Her platform in the contest included liberalizing Russia's gun laws. Torshin was captivated. He hired Butina as a special assistant. That same year, she became the founding chair of Russia's new gun group: the Right to Bear Arms.
In late 2013, Torshin and Butina hosted an NRA delegation, along with other American gun-rights activists, at a Right to Bear Arms convention in Moscow. A lavish affair, staged in an upscale convention center, the event doubled as a coming-out party for Torshin's young protégé. They arranged private meals for American guests, who feasted on Russian delicacies and downed flavored vodkas. Leggy models in mini-skirts put on a fashion show, flashing garter belts that doubled as conceal-carry gun holsters. "I was impressed with the grassroots movement they created," says Gottlieb, of the Second Amendment Foundation. "I wish we had as many good-looking young ladies involved in our gun-rights movement here in the United States."
For an upstart organization, the Right to Bear Arms' conference was crawling with Russian government officials. Torshin delivered the keynote address, and Butina presented him and a half-dozen other Russian politicians – including the ultra-nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky – with honorary memberships. (Butina has denied taking even "one coin" in government money.) Leading the American cohort was the NRA's president, Keene, who delivered his address promoting Russo-American unity. In pictures, Keene posed next to Butina – now sporting long red hair – grinning like a schoolboy.
Putin did not attend, but those in the audience felt his influence. "I make the assumption that they have the blessing of more than just Alexander Torshin, because he's an upper-ranking member of Putin's party," Gottlieb says. "He's not going to do things that are going to upset Putin." (Despite this cleareyed assessment, Gottlieb rejects the notion that the Russians and the NRA were in cahoots in 2016.)
Right to Bear Arms' international outreach extended to John Bolton, the former U.N. ambassador and longtime NRA activist, who now serves as President Trump's national security adviser. In late 2013, a video appeared online of Bolton delivering an address to Right to Bear Arms, as the group was pursuing a gun-rights amendment to the Russian constitution. (That campaign – like much of Right to Bear Arms' political agenda – has foundered.) Through his bushy mustache, Bolton praised Putin's autocratic country as a "force for democracy in the world," and encouraged the Russian activists. "Good luck on your journey," he said, "into a new century of freedom."
Torshin feted Butina, calling her "very young and talented. She is the youngest prominent public figure in the Russian Federation." Torshin also praised more than her political acumen, saying she had become "more beautiful" and "ideally slim." Hall, the former CIA officer, says Butina fits a mold: "The Russians are not stupid. It's a safe bet that there's more men in leadership positions on the conservative side of American politics in places like the NRA. If you are looking to attract people to your cause, guys would be more interested in talking to somebody like her. It's one of the old plays out of the KGB handbook."
Butina, he says, "reminds me of Anna Chapman – the fiery redhead who was one of the illegals who was kicked out of the United States back in 2010." Chapman had lived in New York before being unmasked as a spy by the FBI; she pleaded guilty to acting as a foreign agent and was deported in a spy exchange – for the Russian double agent recently poisoned with a nerve agent in the U.K. Chapman now has a popular Instagram account in which she poses in revealing outfits, often with weapons. Butina has flashed a similar sex appeal, stripping down for a 2014 profile in GQ Russia – wielding a pair of pistols, wearing stilettos, a black leather jacket, and lingerie from Dolce & Gabbana – and posing as the cover model for the Right to Bear Arms glossy in-house magazine.
In early 2014, U.S.-Russia relations were cratering, following the invasion of Crimea. Torshin helped steer the legislation that officially annexed the territory, appearing with Putin at a Kremlin signing ceremony. But his relationship with the NRA was sunnier than ever. "Republicans are the bones of the NRA," Torshin tweeted in February. "Great political victories are ahead of you!" At the 2014 convention in Indianapolis, Butina met with the highest-ranking officers of the NRA – including, Rolling Stone can report, Wayne LaPierre, the NRA's executive vice president. She presented a plaque from Right to Bear Arms to then-NRA president Jim Porter, tweeting, "Mission accomplished." Her tour through the conservative elite included snapping selfies with former GOP presidential candidates Bobby Jindal and Rick Santorum.
As a guest of Keene, Butina joined the rituals of the Golden Ring of Freedom, even ringing the NRA's liberty bell. "To the right to bear arms for citizens of the whole world," she said as the bell sounded. Her first American trip, she blogged, culminated in "an experience at the Washington office of the NRA." Standing before the group's blue-glass headquarters, she posed for a photo with Keene.
Butina and Torshin soon began leveraging their NRA connections to gain personal access to GOP presidential contenders. Not yet a declared candidate, Trump addressed the NRA's 2015 convention in Nashville. "We need strength," Trump said. "We need people that are respected. Putin has no respect for our president." Torshin has claimed he met Trump in Nashville, and that Trump ribbed him: " So, you're from Russia – when are you going to invade Latvia?" The Trump White House has denied this encounter took place.
The Russians also rubbed elbows with Scott Walker, then a viable candidate, and the beneficiary of more than $3.5 million from the NRA over his career. Walker charmed Butina when they first met, she blogged, greeting her in Russian. "We talked about Russia," she wrote. "I did not hear any aggression towards our country, the president or my compatriots." Two months later, Butina traveled to Waukesha, Wisconsin, to attend Walker's official presidential launch.
Butina was not keeping a low profile. In June, she wrote an English-language op-ed about U.S-Russia relations for The National Interest, the foreign-policy magazine founded by neoconservative Irving Kristol. Butina staked out a case for regime change in America: "It may take the election of a Republican to the White House in 2016 to improve relations between the Russian Federation and the United States," she wrote. "As improbable as it may sound, the Russian bear shares more interests with the Republican elephant than the Democratic donkey." Citing the GOP's coalition of social conservatives, businessmen and anti-terrorism hawks, Butina wrote, "These are values espoused by United Russia, the current ruling political party in Moscow." The magazine identified Butina as the founder of "a Russian version of the NRA." Not included in her bio: Butina was still on the government payroll, as special assistant to Torshin, who by now was deputy governor of the Russian central bank.
Butina soon appeared in Las Vegas for Freedom Fest, a libertarian conference where Trump spoke. Barely a month into his candidacy, Trump had said little formally about Russian relations. "I am from Russia," Butina said in lilting English from a microphone in a ballroom at the Planet Hollywood casino. "If you would be elected as the president, do you want to continue the politics of sanctions?"
"I know Putin," Trump replied. "I believe I would get along very nicely with Putin. OK?" Then Trump gave an answer that was music to Kremlin ears: "I don't think you'd need the sanctions."
Butina's intelligence, drive and charisma won her powerful friends in the NRA. But she became remarkably close with one lifelong GOP activist in particular: Paul Erickson. Six-feet-four, with a bald crown ringed by graying curls, Erickson has a skier's build and greets fellow Yalies with a fight-song-inspired "Boola, Boola." A member of the same cohort of college Republicans that produced Norquist, Christian Coalition head Ralph Reed and disgraced super-lobbyist Jack Abramoff, Erickson has enjoyed a vivid and varied career. A rabid anti-communist, he spent the summer of 1983 sending supplies to insurgents battling the USSR in Afghanistan. He has lobbied on behalf of Zairean strongman Mobutu Sese Seko, mounted the "Love Hurts" media tour for celebrity penis amputee John Wayne Bobbitt and was credited as an executive producer on Abramoff's 1989 B-movie Red Scorpion, starring Dolph Lundgren.
Like Keene, with whom he served on the board of the American Conservative Union, Erickson is a low-profile everywhere man, described by one friend as a "secret master of the political universe." He has helped run a number of GOP presidential campaigns, serving as national political director for nativist Pat Buchanan's 1992 run. (Erickson did not respond to repeated interview requests.) In 2013, Erickson joined the NRA's first visit to the Right to Bear Arms conference in Moscow – the following September, according to Butina's blog, he returned to Russia, solo, to address her group on behalf of the NRA.
As she tracked GOP presidential candidates in 2015, Butina touched down, repeatedly, in South Dakota, where Erickson lives. In July, she lectured at a camp for young Republicans with Erickson by her side. That same month, the duo appeared on a podcast in Manhattan. Erickson regaled the audience with a creation myth about Right to Bear Arms worthy of a Silicon Valley startup. "Maria is very humble," Erickson said. "She started the Right to Bear Arms in the Russian version of McDonald's with friends, and her work became noticed by the highest levels of the Russian government." In September, the pair partied by the graveside of F. Scott Fitzgerald in Maryland. Butina wore a flapper's silver headband and a long string of pearls; Erickson carried a bottle of rum and a copy of The Great Gatsby.
At the close of 2015, Torshin and Butina invited a new delegation of NRA members to a Right to Bear Arms convention in Moscow. The crowd included faces familiar and new, including Keene; Pete Brownell, CEO of one of America's largest gun-sellers who is now the NRA's president; Joe Gregory, the chair of the NRA's Golden Ring of Freedom; as well as Trump surrogate and then-Milwaukee Sheriff David A. Clarke. Erickson reportedly also attended.
The Russians put on a wintry spectacle – replete with ornate Christmas trees and white chairs tied up like presents with red ribbons. Arnold Goldschlager, a major NRA donor who also attended, would tell McClatchy, "They were killing us with vodka and the best Russian food." In a public filing, Clarke estimated Right to Bear Arms spent $6,000 on his hotels, meals, excursions and transportation around Moscow.
Maria Butina, founder of Russia's Right to Bear Arms, at an NRA convention in Nashville in 2015.
Maria Butina, founder of Russia's Right to Bear Arms, at an NRA convention in Nashville in 2015. Maria Butina/Facebook
In these same days, Putin himself was pursuing other angles of influence with the American right. The Russian president met with right-wing pastor Franklin Graham for a 45-minute exchange. And on December 10th, Putin infamously sat next to Gen. Michael Flynn, Trump's future national security adviser, at an RT gala in Moscow.
As they lived the high life in Moscow, the NRA delegation kept crossing paths with top Putin cabinet officials. Clarke tweeted about a meeting with "the Russian Foreign Minister" – who is Sergey Lavrov. NRA members also convened with Dmitry Rogozin, the deputy prime minister of Russia who is in charge of the defense industry, and a subject of U.S. sanctions. But for the representatives of the NRA, geopolitics seemed a distant concern. This trip was all fun and guns. Sheriff Clarke tweeted photos from Russian gunmaker Orsis, delighting, "I test fired one of their sniper rifles."
The Russians, Hall believes, were seeking a "mechanism by which they can, sort of, control the NRA."
If NRA members were having a carefree good time, the Russians were almost certainly watching their every move, seeking leverage, says Hall. "The FSB is set up first and foremost to collect compromising information on people who might later be useful to the Russian government," he says. "It's not always that," he adds. "A lot of it involves establishing personal relationships that then could be leveraged into something different. That's where a lot of the dinners, and the toasting, and the private meetings start. This is something the Russians have done for decades."
The Russians, Hall believes, were seeking a "mechanism by which they can, sort of, control the NRA." They might start with the "friendly route," he says, "pulling the wool over the organization's eyes, getting them to buy into: 'Hey, we're both real conservatives at heart. Russia is actually a friend of the United States. Why can't we get past all of this ugliness?" The question is where the camaraderie ends. "Do they end up with a senior NRA guy who they formally recruited, who can now work clandestinely for them?"
Many recruits are oblivious of Russian influence – until it's too late. "They'll start it off with something seemingly innocuous," Hall says. "And then they'll move it as far as they possibly can. If they start hitting resistance, they might very well say, 'Let's not forget that trip to Moscow you took six months ago, where you had a few too many drinks and got a little too friendly with somebody.' That's there as well."
At the beginning of 2016, Butina and Erickson were taking their relationship to a new level. Back in South Dakota, they became partners in a limited-liability corporation called Bridges; in legal documents, Butina and Erickson list their address at the same suite in Sioux Falls, but the purpose and activities of Bridges remain opaque. According to a conversation between Erickson and reporters for McClatchy, the corporation, founded in February 2016, "was established in case Butina needed any monetary assistance for her graduate studies." (Months later, Butina would enroll in a master's program at American University.) McClatchy deadpanned this would be "an unusual way to use an LLC."
The timing of Bridges' founding is notable. Three days later, Torshin tweeted from Russia, sharing news of the Republican presidential race: "Maria Butina is now in the U.S. She writes to me that D. Trump (a member of the NRA) is really for the cooperation with Russia."
That spring, Erickson would attempt to broker a meeting between the GOP candidate and Torshin, with the hope that it would lead to a future sit-down between Trump and Putin. Erickson sent an e-mail to a top member of the Trump campaign in May, with the subject line "Kremlin Connection." (The message, obtained by Congress, was shared with The New York Times.) Erickson explained that "happenstance" and NRA connections had enabled him to "slowly begin cultivating a back-channel to President Putin's Kremlin." He informed the campaign that "Putin is deadly serious about building a good relationship with Mr. Trump" and wished candidate Trump "to visit him in the Kremlin." Erickson implied that Moscow saw Hillary Clinton as "beyond redemption."
Referring to "President Putin's emissary on this front" – who The New York Times determined was Torshin – Erickson proposed an initial meeting would be possible between Trump and Torshin in Louisville, Kentucky. Timed with the 2016 NRA convention, Erickson wrote, the event weekend could be used by Torshin to "make 'first contact.' "
The NRA officially endorsed Trump in Louisville on May 20th, marking the gun lobby's earliest-ever presidential endorsement. Accepting the NRA's backing, Trump vowed, "I will never let you down." Torshin watched in the audience, later tweeting, "He was not simply endorsed at the NRA Congress at Louisville, it was unanimous. . . . the applause!"
Torshin, it seems, did not secure the face-to-face meeting with Trump. But the Russian banker did meet with the president's son, lifetime NRA member Donald Trump Jr., at a dinner during the convention. (Outreach from Russia was coming strong: Weeks later, in early June, Trump Jr. would sit down with another cast of Russians promising "dirt" on Clinton at Trump Tower.) In July, Torshin received his medal from the FSB.
Through Election Day, the NRA would spend more than $30 million in federally recorded funds on behalf of Trump. Citing two sources close to the gun lobby, McClatchy reporters Peter Stone and Greg Gordon suggest the true total may be far greater – $70 million or more – noting that Internet advertising, field work and get-out-the-vote campaigns are not documented in federal disclosures.
The source of the millions spent by the NRA is untraceable; the organization is a dark-money giant that can hide its benefactors. This privilege of secrecy is granted to "social welfare" organizations, whose primary purpose is not political. Despite its prodigious power in our elections, the NRA spends most of its money on other activities – from magazine publishing to gun education to NRATV.
"The NRA is routinely used as a conduit" for "sketchy" money spent on Republican politics, says Maguire, the investigator for the Center for Responsive Politics. "We've seen some of the groups in the Koch network give large, six- and seven-figure grants to the NRA – knowing that the NRA is going to spend that money on ads in an election," Maguire says. "They get away with it."
The Russians, Maguire says, could easily have funneled money into the NRA's coffers, using a similar pathway: "It is not surprising that the NRA would be used in that way." It might even have been legal, he says. The NRA is allowed to accept foreign cash; it's only forbidden from spending that money directly on U.S. elections. But in an organization as vast and varied as the NRA, cash is fungible. A legal, ostensibly apolitical donation to the NRA by Russia could have freed up other, unrestricted funds to spend on politics. It's also possible the gun lobby was duped. "The NRA may have been used without even knowing it," Maguire says. "Russians could easily set up a Delaware corporation, with a name like 'Americans for Gun Freedom LLC,' and give the NRA a $5 million check. The NRA would just say, 'Hey great, it sounds like our kind of people,' " and spend the cash.
The NRA did not respond to numerous requests to comment for this piece. In letters to Ron Wyden, the ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee, a lawyer for the NRA wrote that the organization is committed to "raise and spend our funds within the bounds of the law" and that it works to vet "significant contributions from unknown entities." However, the lawyer admitted that the NRA accepts donations from "foreign persons" to accounts not dedicated to elections – adding that money moves between election and nonelection accounts "as permitted by law."
Wyden tells Rolling Stone that "money in these accounts could be used to pay for ad campaigns and voter mobilization efforts," insisting that "the NRA has a public responsibility to disclose where their foreign donations are coming from." Understanding how "outside actors are directly or indirectly influencing the U.S. political debate," the Oregon Democrat says, "is critical to the preservation of our Democracy."
Torshin has blasted the accusations in the McClatchy exposé as "gossip from the media," taunting critics on Twitter to "produce concrete proof of my financing of the NRA (amounts of money, account numbers, dates). . . . I'm waiting!" On social media, Butina has argued her gun advocacy should be taken at face value, and not as evidence of the "long arm of the Kremlin" in the 2016 election. "Sometimes," she wrote, in a nod to Freud, "a cigar is just a cigar."
Some members of Congress see the apparent Russian effort to turn the NRA as part of a larger, ongoing Kremlin offensive. "The tentacles of Russian enterprise in this country are deep and ubiquitous," says Rep. Jackie Speier, a California Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee. "The Russians are as close to being warlike as you can imagine, without bullets being fired." Putin, says Sen. Cardin, "uses an asymmetric arsenal in order to undermine our democracy and our institutions of democracy" – noting that "part of his game plan is to finance entities that he believes disrupt the unity of our country." Pointing to the gun lobby's polarizing role in our political culture, Cardin adds, "The NRA would be perfect."
https://www.rollingstone.com/politics/f ... mp-w518587
Was Jeff Sessions Aware of a Proposed Trump-Putin Back Channel?
New details from the House Intelligence Committee suggest the attorney general was privy to a critical episode of the NRA-Russia scandal
6 days ago
Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Capitol Hill this week. Andrew Harnik/AP
Democrats have published a response to the House Intelligence Committee report on the Trump/Russia nexus, released Friday by the committee's Republican majority. The minority report offers new details – and unanswered questions – about the role of the NRA as a conduit between Russia and the Trump campaign, raising fresh questions about then-Senator Jeff Sessions' knowledge of Russian outreach.
The Democratic report affirms and amplifies the findings of Rolling Stone's investigation into the NRA's Russia connections. In particular, the Democrats strongly suggest that Putin ally Alexander Torshin was running an op through the NRA: "The Kremlin-linked individual" – Torshin – "appears to have used the group" – the NRA – "to befriend and establish a backchannel to senior Trump campaign associates through their mutual affinity for firearms," the Democrats write, "a strategy consistent with Russian tradecraft." (Torshin, a lifetime NRA member, was recently sanctioned by the Treasury Department and can no longer travel to the United States.)
The Democratic report also publishes a full excerpt of an infamous May 2016 email from Paul Erickson to the Trump campaign. (Previously, this email had only been reported in snippets by the New York Times.) Erickson is an NRA- and GOP operative who repeatedly visited a Torshin-backed gun-rights group in Moscow. He later started a mysterious business with Torshin's protege, Maria Butina, in South Dakota.
The excerpt is illuminating: Erickson addressed the email – which included a proposed meeting between candidate Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin – to Rick Dearborn, then a top Trump campaign staffer. But the full text suggests Sen. Jeff Sessions was directly in the loop. Erickson wrote:
"I'm now writing to you and Sen. Sessions in your roles as Trump foreign policy experts/advisors. […] Happenstance and the (sometimes) international reach of the NRA placed me in a position a couple of years ago to slowly begin cultivating a back-channel to President Putin's Kremlin. Russia is quietly but actively seeking a dialogue with the U.S. that isn't forthcoming under the current administration. And for reasons that we can discuss in person or on the phone, the Kremlin believes that the only possibility of a true re-set in this relationship would be with a new Republican White House."
Did Sessions, now the attorney general, receive a copy of this email directly? The report's footnote, sourcing the email, reveals the document came from "Attorney General Jeff Session [sic] Document Production." Rolling Stone asked for clarification from a spokesperson for Ranking Member Adam Schiff; he replied: "We cannot comment."
That this email was found in Sessions' files is a startling revelation. Sessions previously told House investigators that he did not recall the outreach by Erickson, according to the New York Times. And it may provide new context for why Sessions recused himself from the Justice Department's Russia investigation.
The Democratic report also reveals that Dearborn moved Erickson's message up the chain of command – and amplified when and where Putin hoped to meet with candidate Trump. "Dearborn communicated this request on May 17, 2016 to the highest levels of the Trump campaign, including Paul Manafort, Rick Gates and Jared Kushner," the Democrats write.
Torshin hoped to use the 2016 NRA convention to break the ice, and open a personal line of communication to "someone of high rank in the Trump Campaign," the report continues. "As explained in Dearborn's email, such a meeting would provide Torshin an opportunity “to discuss an offer he claims to be carrying from President Putin to meet with DJT." ("DJT" is a reference to Donald J. Trump.) "They would also like DJT to visit Russia for a world summit on the persecution of Christians at which Putin and Trump would meet.'"
Ultimately, Torshin met the future-President's son, Donald Jr., at the NRA convention. The Democrats upbraid the majority for "conveniently" concluding there was "no evidence that the two discussed the presidential election." The Democrats expand: "this relies solely on the voluntary and self-interested testimony of the individual in question... Trump Jr." The report adds: "The Majority refused multiple requests by the Minority to interview witnesses central to this line of inquiry, including Torshin, Butina, Erickson, and others."
The Democrats conclude the NRA section of their report with a litany of questions the GOP majority refused to examine, writing that the GOP majority report "ignores significant outstanding questions about individuals who sought to set up this backchannel, including why Torshin and Butina were interested in connecting the Trump campaign to Putin, what they sought to get out of that connection, why they enlisted the support of NRA colleagues, and whether others in the campaign were communicating with Russia through the NRA."
The Democrats also underscore that Republicans took no interest in getting to the bottom of allegations that Russian money illegally boosted Trump's candidacy. "The Majority refused to investigate," Democrats write, "whether Russian-linked intermediaries used the NRA to illegally funnel money to the Trump Campaign, to open lines of communication with or approaches to Trump or his associates, and how those approaches may have informed Russia's active measures campaign as it unfolded throughout 2016."
https://www.rollingstone.com/politics/n ... in-w519652
The NRA May Have More Russian Contributors Than It First Said
Tim MakApril 9, 201810:44 AM ET
A sign touts the 144th National Rifle Association annual meetings and exhibits. The NRA may have more Russian or foreign members than it first acknowledged.
The National Rifle Association may have accepted more contributions from Russian donors than it first acknowledged, new documents show.
A Russian citizen who works for a U.S.-sanctioned arms manufacturer was arrested earlier this year when he tried to board a flight from Los Angeles to Moscow carrying a rifle scope — one authorities say requires an export license.
The man, Evgeny Spiridonov, said in court documents filed as part of his case that he was an NRA member. Spiridonov, who has ties to weapons-maker Kalashnikov Concern, said in the documents he has been an NRA member since 2015. Membership requires a monetary contribution.
That's at least one more Russian member than a lawyer for the NRA acknowledged in an interview with ABC News: Outside counsel Steven Hart told the network that the NRA had received just one contribution from a Russian individual between 2012 and 2018, for less than $1,000.
That was the life membership payment made by a Russian government official, Alexander Torshin, and was not used for any of the NRA's election-related political activities, Hart said.
On Friday, Torshin was among a number of powerful Russians punished with new economic sanctions by the Treasury Department.
Neither Torshin nor an attorney for Spiridonov nor the NRA responded to NPR's request for comment.
"It is membership organization, and unless you're paying the membership dues, you're not a member of the organization," Richard Feldman, a former NRA lobbyist, told NPR. "You can't be a member without having given money."
That may be the case for at least one more Russian. In a Tweet from November 2016, Torshin notes that his aide Maria Butina, a Russian national who claimed she had been part of the Trump campaign's communications with Russia, was, like himself, also a life member of the NRA.
Investigators want to know whether Russia may have tried to use the NRA or other political organizations to influence the information environment inside the United States as part of the attack on the 2016 election.
One key player in the Russia imbroglio told House members he believed Russia's intelligence apparatus sought to "infiltrate" the NRA or other groups. McClatchy reported that the FBI is investigating whether Torshin may have funneled money to the NRA.
As part of these inquiries, Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., asked the NRA in February to list the contributions it had received from Russian nationals. The group declined to directly address the question, saying: "the NRA and its related entities do not accept funds from foreign persons or entities in connection with United States elections."
Since then, the NRA sought to clarify that it does accept foreign donations for its membership organization.
"Nobody is running background checks when they're sending in your check," Feldman said. "There's no way that NRA would even know if someone is a Russian citizen or a Russian national."
https://www.npr.org/2018/04/09/60035995 ... st-it-said
NRA discloses two dozen additional contributions from Russian donors
PHOTO: The National Rifle Association headquarters in Fairfax, Va., is pictured in this undated file photo.Mark Peterson/Corbis via Getty Images, FILE
WATCH Matthew Dowd: NRA 'successful' at forcing 'mythic binary choice' on gun control
The National Rifle Association has acknowledged two dozen additional contributions from Russian donors since 2015 in a significant departure from their previous claim that only one Russian had donated to the controversial gun-rights group.
After telling ABC News the organization had received a single contribution of less than $1,000 from one Russian individual, the NRA revised that total in an April 10 letter to Sen. Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, who has been pushing to learn more about the NRA’s election spending.
“Given your focus on potential Russian influence between 2015 and the present, we reviewed our financial records for that period,” wrote John C. Frazer, the NRA’s Secretary and General Counsel. “During that time, the NRA received a total of approximately $2512.85 from people associated with Russian addresses (which may include U.S. citizens living in Russia), or known Russian nationals living in the United States.”
“Of this total, about $525 was from two individuals who made contributions to the NRA,” Frazer continued. “The rest consisted of routine payments from about 23 individuals for membership dues and additional magazine subscriptions.”
Steven Hart, outside counsel to the NRA, told ABC News a different story in March.
“We have one contribution from a Russian,” Hart said, adding that “the donation was the person’s membership dues” and was not used for election-related activities” and “was not a major donor program.”
PHOTO: Sen. Ron Wyden, a Democrat from Oregon, questions witnesses during a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on election security in Washington, D.C., March 21, 2018.Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Sen. Ron Wyden, a Democrat from Oregon, questions witnesses during a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on election security in Washington, D.C., March 21, 2018.more +
An aide to Sen. Wyden told ABC News the senator is considering making a push for “additional oversight actions” in light of what the aide characterized as an inadequate response to recent inquiries.
“Sen. Wyden will be referring his correspondence with the NRA to the Federal Elections Commission to contribute to their inquiry,” the aide said. “After three letters, the NRA continually, and specifically avoided detailing what measures it takes to vet donations, including from shell companies, a known means for Russians to funnel money into the United States. As ranking member of the Finance Committee, he is considering additional oversight actions in light of this response.”
The individual Hart was referring to was Alexander Torshin, a Russian politician who sat at a dinner table with Donald Trump Jr. at the 2016 National Rifle Association convention but has recently has been the subject of scrutiny as lawmakers and Special Counsel Robert Mueller investigate possible attempts by Russia to influence the 2016 presidential campaign.
The NRA has denied receiving money “from foreign persons or entities in connection with United States elections,” but questions have continued to swirl around the organization’s seemingly close relationship to Torshin.
PHOTO: Russian Council of the Federation Deputy Chief Alexander Torshin is seen during a meeting, April, 3, 2012 in Maloyaroslavets, Russia.Sasha Mordovets/Getty Images, FILE
Russian Council of the Federation Deputy Chief Alexander Torshin is seen during a meeting, April, 3, 2012 in Maloyaroslavets, Russia.more +
Last week, Torshin was added to the list of Russian nationals sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department, raising questions about his long-standing relationship to the NRA, especially in light of revelations that Torshin met with several NRA board members during a December 2015 visit to Moscow.
“There were already red flags regarding Kremlin links to NRA,” Rep. Ted Lieu, a California Democrat, told ABC News following Torshin’s designation. “This just supercharges it.”
Sen. Wyden wrote to the U.S. Treasury Department in February seeking financial records concerning alleged links between Torshin and the NRA, citing published reports suggesting possible ties between Torshin’s interest in the NRA and the organization’s hefty campaign spending in support of then-candidate Donald Trump. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the NRA reported spending nearly $55 million on the 2016 elections, including more than $30 million in support of Trump.
In his letter published Wednesday, Frazer states that the organization is “reviewing [its] responsibilities” with respect to Torshin. The NRA did not immediately respond to questions about what that review might entail or what actions might be taken.
https://abcnews.go.com/Politics/nra-dis ... d=54395292
Alexander Torshin, Russian who courted NRA leaders, sanctioned by US Treasury
PHOTO: Russian Council of the Federation Deputy Chief Alexander Torshin is seen during a meeting, April, 3, 2012 in Maloyaroslavets, Russia.Sasha Mordovets/Getty Images, FILE
WATCH Treasury secretary: 'There is the potential of a trade war'
Alexander Torshin, the Russian politician who sat at a dinner table with Donald Trump Jr. at the 2016 National Rifle Association convention, has been added to the list of Russian nationals sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department.
The deputy governor of the Central Bank of the Russian Federation was for years a paying member of the NRA and repeat guest at the annual National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, but more recently has been the subject of scrutiny as lawmakers and Special Counsel Robert Mueller investigate possible attempts by Russia to influence the 2016 presidential campaign.
“There were already red flags regarding Kremlin links to NRA,” Rep. Ted Lieu, a California Democrat who has been pushing to learn more about Torshin’s activities during the 2016 campaign, told ABC News. “This just supercharges it.”
Lieu, a member of the House Judiciary Committee, sent a letter to NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre in March, expressing his concern with the NRA’s relationship to Torshin and noting that Torshin “acted as a liaison” during a December 2015 visit to Moscow by several NRA attended by board members.
“Torshin’s influence in Russia and his relationship with the NRA suggest this allegation [that Torshin secretly funneled money to the NRA during the 2016 campaign season] may have merit,” Lieu wrote. “It is deeply disturbing that an organization like the NRA, whose stated purposes and objective is to ‘protect and defend the Constitution,’ would meet with sanctioned individuals connected to a foreign adversary that seems determined to undermine elections.”
Lieu told ABC News that he is still awaiting the NRA’s response.
PHOTO: Rep. Ted Lieu at the Mr. Trump, Tear Down This Wall panel during Politicon at Pasadena Convention Center, July 30, 2017 in Pasadena, Calif., July 30, 2017.Joshua Blanchard/Getty Images
Rep. Ted Lieu at the "Mr. Trump, Tear Down This Wall" panel during Politicon at Pasadena Convention Center, July 30, 2017 in Pasadena, Calif., July 30, 2017.more +
Lieu’s letter followed letters from Sen. Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, who wrote to the Treasury Department in February seeking records related to Torshin’s involvement in the NRA. On Friday, Wyden seized the opportunity to renew his call for the release of those records.
"Today's sanctioning of Mr. Torshin is hard evidence of his deep involvement in Vladimir Putin's regime, which actively attacked our democracy in 2016," Wyden said in a statement. "Today's news increases the urgency for the Treasury Department to provide the Finance Committee with relevant documents on Mr. Torshin that I requested months ago."
During testimony before the House Intelligence Committee, Glenn Simpson, the co-founder of the investigative firm Fusion GPS, named Torshin in describing what he said were efforts by Russians to “infiltrate” the NRA.
“I would say broadly speaking, it appears that the Russian operation was designed to infiltrate conservative organizations,” Simpson told investigators. “And they targeted various conservative organizations, religious and otherwise, and they seem to have made a very concerted effort to get in with the NRA.”
Last month, a lawyer for the NRA told ABC News that Torshin had, indeed, donated membership dues of between $600 and $1,000 to the organization. But the lawyer, J. Steven Hart, said that was the extent of money coming from Russians.
“We have one contribution from a Russian,” Steven Hart, outside counsel to the NRA, said in an interview with ABC News before Friday’s sanctions announcement.
Hart said it was the “life membership payment” made by Torshin, which went to the NRA's non-profit parent organization, which is not required by law to disclose the donation. Hart added, “The donation was the person’s membership dues” and was not used for election-related activities. “That was not a major donor program,” he said.
NRA General Counsel John C. Frazer, in an earlier letter to Wyden said the gun-rights group accepted an undisclosed amount of foreign donations, though not for electioneering purposes.
A spokesperson for the NRA did not respond to ABC News' request for comment on Torshin’s designation.
PHOTO: The National Rifle Association headquarters in Fairfax, Va., is pictured in this undated file photo.Mark Peterson/Corbis via Getty Images, FILE
The National Rifle Association headquarters in Fairfax, Va., is pictured in this undated file photo.more +
None of that is mentioned in the Treasury statement announcing the latest list of sanctions. The list is intended to single out “those who benefit from the Putin regime and play a key role in advancing Russia’s malign activities,” the announcement says. In all, 24 individuals and 14 companies were sanctioned, meaning their U.S. assets were frozen and their ability to interact in the international finance system will be severely hampered.
“The Russian government operates for the disproportionate benefit of oligarchs and government elites,” said Treasury Secretary Steven T. Mnuchin. “The Russian government engages in a range of malign activity around the globe, including continuing to occupy Crimea and instigate violence in eastern Ukraine, supplying the Assad regime with material and weaponry as they bomb their own civilians, attempting to subvert Western democracies, and malicious cyber activities. Russian oligarchs and elites who profit from this corrupt system will no longer be insulated from the consequences of their government’s destabilizing activities.”
In addition to Torshin, the list includes oligarchs Oleg Deripaska and Viktor Vekselberg.
Deripaska, a prominent metals magnate who founded En+ Group, reportedly employed Trump’s former campaign manager, Paul Manafort at one point, though they are said to have fallen out. Vekselberg heads the Moscow-based company, Renova. The head of the firm’s U.S. subsidiary (an American citizen) contributed $35,000 to the Trump Victory committee and $250,000 to Trump’s inauguration fund, according to campaign records. The Renova Group also donated between $50,000 and $100,000 to the Clinton Foundation, records show.
Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and one of Vekselberg’s companies held large stakes in the Bank of Cyprus. During Ross’s confirmation hearings, a group of six Democratic senators raised questions about the nominee’s ties to Vekselberg. Vekselberg also helped fundraise for the Moscow Jewish Museum, including hosting a 2014 gala in Russia attended by Trump’s daughter Ivanka and her husband, Jared Kushner.
Ilya Zaslavskiy, an Oxford-trained scholar and frequent critic of the oligarchs, told ABC News he hailed the decision to sanction the Russia oligarchs.
“Sanctioning of Vekselberg and his company Renova shows that US authorities finally - after long bipartisan pressure from Congress and anti-corruption activists - are targeting real oligarchs with actual exposure in the US,” he said.
ABC News attempted to contact Vekselberg through his company, Renova Group, but received no reply.
Whether Torshin factors into any further federal probe of Russian interference is unknown. NRA officials have said they believe time will show conclusively that the organization played no part in any foreign influence effort.
“This is imaginary but details do matter eventually,” Hart told ABC News. “There is no Russian influence [on the NRA]. This all comes off one report. We’ve been trying to be polite. How do you prove a negative?”
For Lieu, Torshin’s activities provides more evidence of Russia’s broad campaign to meddle in the 2016 elections.
“The Russians are very sophisticated,” Lieu told ABC News. “They didn’t just hack us.”
https://abcnews.go.com/Politics/alexand ... d=54295231
The Very Strange Case of Two Russian Gun Lovers, the NRA, and Donald Trump
Here’s what we uncovered about an odd pair from Moscow who cultivated the Trump campaign.
Denise Clifton and Mark FollmanMay/June 2018 Issue
For more than a year, reports have trickled out about deepening ties among prominent members of the National Rifle Association, conservative Republicans, a budding gun-rights movement in Russia—and their convergence in the Trump campaign.
Now attention is focused around a middle-aged Russian central bank official and a photogenic young gun activist from Siberia who share several passions: posing with assault rifles, making connections with Republican lawmakers and presidential candidates, and publicizing their travels between Moscow and America on social media. Alexander Torshin and his protégé Maria Butina also share an extraordinary status with America’s largest gun lobbying group, according to Torshin: “Today in NRA (USA) I know only 2 people from the Russian Federation with the status of ‘Life Member’: Maria Butina and I,” he tweeted the day after Donald Trump was elected president.
Of particular interest are their overtures to Trump. Butina asked him directly at a campaign event about the future of “damaging” sanctions against Russia. Torshin twice tried to meet with Trump, according to the New York Times, and did meet with Donald Trump Jr. at an NRA event. Meanwhile, the House Intelligence Committee has heard sworn testimony about possible Kremlin “infiltration” of the NRA and other conservative groups. And the FBI reportedly is investigating whether Torshin illegally funneled money to the Trump campaign through the NRA—which backed Trump with a record $30 million.
Torshin, a former Russian senator and longtime ally of Vladimir Putin, has been accused of having ties to the Russian mob (an allegation he has denied). Butina, a graduate student since fall 2016 at American University in Washington, DC—who founded a Russian gun rights group and worked as Torshin’s assistant—has reportedly bragged about her connections to the Trump campaign.
Does this odd pair indicate anything more than a far-flung association of international gun rights advocates? Neither Torshin nor Butina responded to our requests for comment, but we built a timeline from hundreds of their photos and social-media posts going back seven years—including previously unreported material—that stirs further questions about their roles.
Introductions and a new gun group
2011: Torshin, then a Russian senator, is introduced to NRA President David Keene through G. Kline Preston IV, a lawyer from Nashville, Tennessee, who had been doing business in Russia for years. Preston later tells the Washington Post, “The value system of Southern Christians and the value system of Russians are very much in line.”
Butina at the 2014 NRA convention in Indianapolis
2011: Maria Butina, in her early 20s, creates Right to Bear Arms, aiming to seed a gun rights movement in Russia.
2011: US gun manufacturer Arsenal Inc. sells 100 limited-edition AK-74s signed by Mikhail Kalashnikov—a personal friend of Torshin’s—with the anticipated $100,000 or more in proceeds to go to the NRA-ILA, the organization’s political lobbying arm.
NRA magazine America’s First Freedom
December 2011: Preston serves as an international observer of Russia’s legislative elections, calling them free and fair, despite mass street protests and European observers reporting fraudulent activity.
Targeted by the Kremlin
2012: The FBI warns Republican Rep. Dana Rohrabacher—a cold warrior turned Russia apologist who claimed to have once lost a drunken arm-wrestling match to Putin in a Washington dive bar—that the Kremlin aims to recruit him as a source.
April 15, 2012: Torshin tweets about returning from the NRA annual convention to a rally in Moscow for the Right to Bear Arms, where he notes how “similar,” “good-looking,” and “confident” the supporters of both gun groups are.
July 24, 2012: Torshin and Butina lobby the Russian senate to expand gun rights.
November 2012: Torshin and Preston observe the US presidential elections in Nashville and allege improprieties took place on behalf of President Barack Obama.
From Houston to Moscow
May 2013: After attending the NRA annual convention in Houston, Torshin writes, “Kalashnikov couldn’t join me, though we have both been ‘life members’ of the NRA for years,” adding that “dozens of AK-47 clones” on display at the event represented one of “our country’s greatest accomplishments.”
Keene and Butina in a photo posted on Butina’s Facebook page in November 2013
November 2013: Torshin and Butina invite Keene to Moscow for a Right to Bear Arms meeting that draws 200 people and features a fashion show, including attire designed for carrying concealed weapons.
Right to Bear Arms Facebook page
November 2013: Former UN ambassador and future Trump national security adviser John Bolton appears in a video in which he talks up gun rights in Russia. Bolton is a member of the NRA’s “international affairs subcommittee” at the time. NPR later reports that Bolton recorded the address at Keene’s request for the Russian legislature, and that Right to Bear Arms used the video in its lobbying.
“We would like to be friends with NRA”
January 2014: Following the death of Kalashnikov at age 94, the Washington Times publishes an appreciation written by Torshin. Former NRA President Keene is the op-ed editor at the time.
April 2014: Torshin and Butina attend the NRA convention in Indianapolis, where Butina joins Keene for meetings. Butina later explains the purpose: “We protect gun rights in Russia, and people who are gun owners and in a situation of self-defense.” She adds, “We would like to be friends with NRA.”
September 2014: Paul Erickson—an NRA member and longtime conservative Republican operative from South Dakota—attends a Right to Bear Arms meeting in Moscow with Butina. Erickson has known Butina at least since 2013.
Butina and Erickson in Russia, in a photo posted in November 2013
November 18, 2014: Russia changes its laws to allow citizens to carry guns in public for self-defense.
Trump to Butina: “I don’t think you’d need the sanctions”
January 2015: Torshin is appointed deputy governor of the Central Bank of Russia.
March 2015: Butina announces on Facebook that she will attend the NRA’s upcoming convention in Nashville. She notes the importance of “paying attention to the politicians that we have more similarities than differences.”
April 2015: Butina posts about 200 pictures from Nashville, including one with Republican Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin, who she says greeted her in Russian. She notes he’s “one of the possible future nominees for the post of US President,” and ponders the “beginning of a new dialogue between Russia and the US.” Donald Trump also attends, telling the crowd, “I promise you one thing, if I run for president and if I win, the Second Amendment will be totally protected, that I can tell you.” Torshin, also present, later tells Bloomberg that he had a “jovial exchange” with the future president.
Butina at the NRA convention in Nashville
April 16, 2015: Butina gives a talk at the University of South Dakota; she says Right to Bear Arms now has 10,000 members and 76 offices “all over Russia.”
June 2015: Four days before Trump announces his campaign, Butina writes in the conservative National Interest urging friendship between “the bear and the elephant”: “It may take the election of a Republican to the White House in 2016 to improve relations between the Russian Federation and the United States.”
July 11, 2015: At FreedomFest in Las Vegas, Butina asks Trump, “What will be your foreign politics…and do you want to continue the politics of sanctions that are damaging on both economy?” Trump responds, “I know Putin and I’ll tell you what, we get along with Putin…I don’t think you’d need the sanctions. I think that we would get along very, very well.”
Q&A with Trump at FreedomFest
July 13, 2015: Butina posts photos from the Wisconsin event where Gov. Scott Walker announces his presidential candidacy.
Butina attends Gov. Walker’s campaign launch
August 29, 2015: Preston tweets a picture of Trump speaking to the National Federation of Republican Assemblies, posting in Russian, “Donald Trump today in Nashville. He is a friend of Russia.”
September 25, 2015: A Right to Bear Arms post on Facebook features a Trump meme, attributing to him in Russian, “Nobody can encroach on the citizenry’s right to store and carry firearms. Period.”
Right to Bear Arms post
December 8-13, 2015: Erickson, Keene, future NRA President Pete Brownell, and Milwaukee Sheriff David Clarke meet with Kremlin officials in Moscow, where they have lavish meals and visit a gun manufacturer. Clarke, an outspoken Trump supporter, later files an ethics report showing that Right to Bear Arms paid $6,000 for his expenses.
December 10, 2015: Future Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn is also in Moscow, attending a gala for the Kremlin-controlled RT media network. Flynn, who sits next to Putin and across from future Green Party candidate Jill Stein, gives a speech for which he is paid $45,000—a sum he fails to report on his financial disclosure forms.
January 21, 2016: Trump speaks at the National Shooting Sports Foundation’s annual “SHOT Show” in Las Vegas; Don Jr. and Eric Trump also attend, posing with representatives from Sig Sauer, whose “Black Mamba” MCX assault rifle would soon be used in the Orlando nightclub massacre. Ten days later, at an event at an Iowa gun shop, Don Jr. and Eric Trump shoot assault rifles and brag about their concealed-carry permits. “I shoot all the time,” Don Jr. tells the Telegraph. “Every weekend.”
February 13, 2016: Torshin writes on Twitter, “Maria Butina is currently in the USA. She writes to me that D. Trump (an NRA member) really is for cooperation with Russia.”
February 2016: Butina and Erickson form Bridges LLC. Erickson later tells McClatchy that they created the South Dakota-based company for Butina to get financial assistance for her graduate studies—“an unusual way to use a LLC,” as McClatchy dryly notes.
February 23, 2016: After winning the Nevada primary, Trump gives a victory speech hailing his sons’ gun bona fides: “[Don Jr.] loves the rifle stuff. This is serious rifle. This is serious NRA, both of them, both of them. We love the Second Amendment folks. Nobody loves it more than us, so just remember that.”
March 3, 2016: In a primary debate, Trump is reminded that in his 2000 book, The America We Deserve, he supported a ban on assault weapons. His response: “I don’t support it anymore.”
May 2016: In an email to Trump campaign aide Rick Dearborn, with the subject line “Kremlin Connection,” Erickson says Russia is “quietly but actively seeking a dialogue with the U.S.” and proposes using the NRA convention to set up “first contact” with the Trump team. According to a New York Times report, Erickson writes that he’s in a position to “slowly begin cultivating a back-channel to President Putin’s Kremlin.” The email doesn’t name Torshin but appears to reference him as “President Putin’s emissary” who planned to attend a dinner hosted by conservative Christian activist Rick Clay. Meanwhile, Clay sends an email to Dearborn with the subject line “Russian backdoor overture and dinner invite,” seeking a meeting between Trump and Torshin. Dearborn forwards Clay’s email to Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who reportedly nixes the proposal.
May 19-20, 2016: Torshin meets Don Jr. at a private dinner the night before his father speaks at the NRA convention in Louisville, Kentucky. Don Jr.’s lawyer later says the exchange “was all gun-related small talk.”
The NRA endorses Trump for president. Trump tells the crowd, “The only way to save our Second Amendment is to vote for a person that you all know named Donald Trump.”
Torshin poses for photos wearing an NRA “Ring of Freedom” donor ID badge.
June 2016: Butina is part of a group that requests a meeting with the Trump campaign to discuss the persecution of Christians worldwide, according to Clay, who later tells the Washington Post that Dearborn turned down the request.
June 15, 2016: House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy tells fellow GOP leaders in a private conversation, “There’s two people I think Putin pays: Rohrabacher and Trump. Swear to God.” House Speaker Paul Ryan immediately shuts down the conversation and swears those present to secrecy. When a recording of the conversation later becomes public, McCarthy says he was just joking.
August 2016: Hours after Trump appears to threaten Hillary Clinton during a campaign rally by invoking “Second Amendment people” who might “do something” to stop her, Politico reports that the NRA has bought its most expensive pro-Trump campaign ad yet: a $3 million spot attacking Clinton.
September 2016: Don Jr. appears in a promotional video for gun silencer manufacturer SilencerCo, whose CEO subsequently donates $50,000 to the Trump Victory fund. “That thing’s awesome,” Don Jr. says, firing guns in the opening segment. The 38-minute video closes with the CEO saying, “Your father is someone that we believe in very strongly.”
October 2016: A wave of NRA-sponsored TV political ads targets voters in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and North Carolina. Since the end of June, the NRA has aired more than 10,000 ads criticizing Clinton or extolling Trump—about 16 percent of all TV ads produced by Trump and his allies. Trump goes on to win all three states.
Early November 2016: Pro-gun messages feature prominently in “junk news” spread by Russian trolls and others on Twitter, particularly in key battleground states, according to a later analysis by Oxford University researchers.
November 8, 2016: Donald Trump is elected the 45th president of the United States.
November 12, 2016: Butina hosts a costume party in DC for her 28th birthday, attended by Erickson and Trump campaign aides. Erickson dresses as Russian mystic Rasputin, and Butina dresses as the Russian empress Alexandra. Two unnamed guests tell the Daily Beast that Butina bragged about being part of the Trump campaign’s communications with Russia.
“You came through for me”
Jan. 20, 2017: Butina and Erickson attend the Freedom Ball, one of the three official inaugural balls Trump attends.
From right: Kolyadin and Torshin, with others including Rohrabacher, second from left
January 31, 2017: Torshin, Erickson, Rohrabacher (who has received at least $18,000 from the NRA over the past 20 years), and former Kremlin staffer Andrey Kolyadin attend a private event on Capitol Hill hosted by George O’Neill Jr., a longtime conservative activist.
February 2, 2017: Torshin and Butina accompany a delegation of more than a dozen Russian officials and academics to the National Prayer Breakfast, where Trump is the main attraction. Kolyadin posts a photo with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, commenting that he “treats Russia pretty well, by the way.” Kolyadin later brags about his “direct access to leadership,” noting, “we sat very close to each other and just smiled.”
Torshin was scheduled to meet with President Trump, but the meeting is canceled when a national security aide points out that Torshin reportedly is under investigation by Spanish authorities for an alleged “godfather” role in organized crime and money laundering. For his part, Rohrabacher tells Yahoo News that Torshin is “sort of the conservatives’ favorite Russian.”
“Direct access to leadership”
February 24, 2017: “For years, the media couldn’t have cared less about Vladimir Putin or Russia,” NRA leader Wayne LaPierre says in a speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference, giving early voice to a “deep state” conspiracy theory on Trump’s behalf: “But now, barely a month into Trump’s presidency, they’re ‘horrified’ and all a-fret over the ‘Russian-American equation.’ Even more alarming is that they’ve apparently found willing co-conspirators among some in the US intelligence community.”
April 28, 2017: Having recently reversed an Obama-era law making it more difficult for mentally ill people to buy guns, Trump addresses the NRA annual convention: “You came through for me,” he says, “and I am going to come through for you.”
August 15, 2017: After Rohrabacher meets with WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange at the Ecuadorean Embassy in London, he claims he has evidence to share with the White House that the Russians did not hack the Democratic National Committee. But White House chief of staff John Kelly rebuffs him. Rohrabacher later tells the Intercept, “What is preventing me from talking to Trump about this is the existence of a special prosecutor. Not only Kelly, but others are worried if I say one word to Trump about Russia, that it would appear to out-of-control prosecutors that that is where the collusion is.”
October to November 2017: Russian-linked trolls spread conspiracy theories following mass shootings on the Las Vegas Strip and at a church in Sutherland Springs, Texas.
November 14, 2017: “It appears the Russians…infiltrated the NRA,” Glenn Simpson, founder of the opposition research firm Fusion GPS, testifies to the House Intelligence Committee. “They targeted various conservative organizations, religious and otherwise, and they seem to have made a very concerted effort to get in with the NRA.” Referencing Torshin and Butina, he adds, “The most absurd [thing] about this is that, you know, Vladimir Putin is not in favor of universal gun ownership for Russians. And so it’s all a big charade, basically.”
Investigations and a politicized school massacre
January 18, 2018: McClatchy reports the FBI is investigating whether Torshin illegally funneled money to the Trump campaign through the NRA. (The FBI would “neither confirm nor deny” the investigation to Mother Jones.)
January 29, 2018: Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff, the ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, tells NPR that the committee’s probe of the NRA-Russia angle has been stymied by the Republican majority.
“I am specifically troubled by the possibility that Russian-backed shell companies or intermediaries may have circumvented laws designed to prohibit foreign meddling in our elections.”
February 2, 2018: Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden sends separate letters to the NRA and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin demanding they provide any documents showing financial ties between the NRA and Russia. “I am specifically troubled by the possibility that Russian-backed shell companies or intermediaries may have circumvented laws designed to prohibit foreign meddling in our elections,” Wyden writes. NRA General Counsel John Frazer responds, “The NRA and its related entities do not accept funds from foreign persons or entities in connection with United States.”
February 14, 2018: Following the school massacre in Parkland, Florida, Kremlin-linked trolls and Russian state media jump into action on Twitter, stirring both sides of the gun debate.
February 21, 2018: During a live-televised “listening session” with Parkland survivors at the White House, Trump endorses NRA talking points to end “gun-free zones” and arm teachers to “harden” America’s schools.
February 22, 2018: Trump hails the leaders of the NRA: “Great People and Great American Patriots. They love our Country and will do the right thing. MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN!” NRA spokesperson Dana Loesch echoes Trump’s blame on the FBI’s Russia investigation for the failure to prevent the Parkland massacre: “Maybe if you politicized your agency less and did your job more, we wouldn’t have these problems.”
March 2018: In an NRA magazine, LaPierre blasts media bias against Trump, specifically calling out coverage of “the bogus Russia investigation.”
March 1, 2018: Trump and Vice President Mike Pence meet privately in the Oval Office with NRA Executive Director Chris Cox. Trump calls the meeting “great.” Cox announces: “POTUS & VPOTUS support the Second Amendment, support strong due process and don’t want gun control. #NRA #MAGA.”
The NRA, Trump administration, and Paul Erickson did not respond to requests for comment.
Additional reporting and translations from Russian by Hannah Levintova. The above timeline has been updated since initial publication.
Top image credit: Shalgin Alexander/TASS/ZUMA; Anton Novoderezhkin/ITAR-TASS/ZUMA; Jonathan Alcorn/ZUMA; FerhatMatt/Getty
https://www.motherjones.com/politics/20 ... shin-guns/
In total there are 119 users online :: 2 registered, 3 hidden and 114 guests (based on users active over the past 5 minutes)