Did a shadowy Russian banker close to Vladimir Putin illegally give money to the National Rifle Association to support the presidential campaign of Donald Trump? That's the subject of an active FBI investigation, according to an explosive report by McClatchy.
Here's what you need to know:
Unprecedented Trump Support
The National Rifle Association spent tens of millions of dollars backing Trump's presidential bid in 2016. The NRA endorsed Trump in May 2016. And the NRA disclosed it spent at least $30 million on Trump's behalf and attacking Hillary Clinton. That level of support is unprecedented – more than twice what the NRA disclosed it spent on Mitt Romney's 2012 presidential run.
The true sum the NRA spent to install Trump in the White House may be far higher. Campaign finance disclosures do not cover spending on unregulated Internet advertising or voter mobilization; citing two sources close to the gun group, McClatchy suggests the NRA may have spent upwards of $70 million on Trump's presidential bid.
President Trump is clearly indebted: "You came through for me, and I am going to come through for you," Trump promised the NRA at its 2017 convention. "I will never, ever let you down."
In the age of Citizens United and unlimited campaign donations, the NRA has emerged as an important "dark money" hub in Republican politics. Under its tax code designation, the NRA is a "social welfare" organization, largely exempt from disclosing its donors. To skirt disclosure, other big-dollar political players – including a SuperPAC linked to Karl Rove and a "chamber of commerce" controlled by the Koch Brothers – have routinely steered money into the NRA, confident that the gun group's spending will advance the GOP cause.
It is illegal, however, for foreign money to be used to influence U.S. elections. According to McClatchy, the heart of the FBI investigation is whether the NRA became a conduit for Russian cash, linked to the Kremlin, that bolstered Trump.
The Banker and "Godfather"
The key figure in the NRA/Russia investigation, McClatchy reports, is Alexander Torshin. Torshin is a longtime Putin ally who previously served as a top Russian senator. He is now a deputy governor of Russia's central bank, where his purview includes cracking down on the outflow of dirty money.
That's ironic, because Torshin has been linked to money laundering. Bloomberg reported on the conclusions of a 2013 investigation by Spanish authorities, writing that "Alexander Torshin instructed members of the Moscow-based Taganskaya crime syndicate how to launder ill-gotten gains through banks and properties in Spain."
As a result of this investigation, Spain convicted a Torshin underling – who reportedly called Torshin "boss" and "godfather" in recordings – and sentenced this man to nearly four years in prison for illegal transactions totaling more than $1.8 million. Torshin himself was not charged; a Spanish official told Bloomberg that Russia won't cooperate in cases against top politicians. Toshin has denied any wrongdoing.
Torshin helped establish a Russian gun group called Right to Bear Arms, whose president calls Torshin "a great gun lover." Torshin is also a life member of the NRA – and forged ties to its leadership after attending the NRA's national convention in 2013. McClatchy reports that, in 2015, Toshin hosted "a high-level NRA delegation" during a week-long Moscow trip "that included meetings with influential Russian government and business figures." An attendee describes a debauched week: "They were killing us with vodka and the best Russian food," he told McClatchy. "The trip exceeded my expectations by logarithmic levels."
At the May 2016 NRA convention in Louisville, Kentucky, where Donald Trump accepted the group's endorsement, Torshin shared a table at dinner with the candidate's son Donald Jr. According to Bloomberg, Torshin claimed to also have met now-president Trump at the convention, and that: "He keeps photos of the event on his computer tablet."
The 2016 NRA convention came off just as Russians were actively seeking contact with the Trump campaign – just weeks earlier, a Russian conduit told Trump staffer George Papadopoulos that Russia had "dirt" on Hillary Clinton, including thousands of her emails. – and hoping to set up a meeting with Trump and Putin.
According to the New York Times, Torshin tried to set up a dinner meeting in Louisville at the time of the NRA convention with then-candidate Trump – with the aim of connecting Trump with Putin. The request was conveyed through a Trump ally in the Christian conservative world, who reportedly sent the campaign an email with the subject line: "Russian backdoor overture and dinner invite." (Trump did not attend that dinner.)
Separately, an NRA member, Paul Erickson – who had been part of the 2015 NRA delegation to Moscow – wrote an email titled, "Kremlin Connection," to Trump campaign adviser Rick Dearborn, according to the New York Times. Erickson reportedly told the campaign that Russia was "quietly but actively seeking a dialogue with the U.S." and would be seeking "first contact" at the NRA convention.
Weeks later, in early June 2016, the trio of Donald Trump Jr., then-campaign manager Paul Manafort, and Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner took a meeting with a Putin-connected lawyer who had offered incriminating material on Hillary Clinton. Former Trump White House adviser Steve Bannon has dubbed that meeting "treasonous."
A Potential Game Changer
The allegation that Russia funneled money into the NRA – to directly support Trump's presidential bid – is staggering. Until now, we've understood the Russian support of Trump to have been oblique, delivered by a cadre of Facebook and Twitter trolls, and by the release of hacked DNC and Clinton campaign emails through Wikileaks.
The notion that the Kremlin was supporting Trump's presidential bid financially – and through an organization that holds itself up as a paragon of American patriotism – is almost unreal.
If the allegation bears out, it raises unsettling questions:
How much money did Torshin deliver?
Did the NRA understand that this money was coming from Moscow?
Did the Trump campaign?
Did Russian funds only support Trump – or did the money infiltrate the NRA's broader mission of electing Republicans? (In total, the NRA spent nearly $52 million in the 2016 general election on dozens of House and Senate races.)
Does Russian influence have anything to do with the fascistic turn in NRA messaging?
The NRA did not return a call seeking comment from Rolling Stone.
We will update if we hear back.