Inside the Decade-Long Russian Campaign to Infiltrate the NRA and Help Elect Trump
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 Maria 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.”
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 Maria 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.
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.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.”
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.
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.”
Everything we know about the members of Trump’s campaign who had contact with the Russian government. Watch below.