Until now, the Russian infiltration of the National Rifle Association has looked like a sidecar to Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into the Kremlin’s interference in the 2016 election.
The prosecution of Maria Butina, the lifetime NRA member who in December pleaded guilty to conspiracy charges of seeking to act as a foreign agent, was handled outside the Special Counsel’s office, by the U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia — giving the impression that Mueller had bigger fish to fry.
But Mueller may have had the NRA in his sights all along. Citing an unnamed source, CNN is reporting that Mueller’s team has been “raising questions about the relationship between the campaign and the gun group” in recent weeks. The report’s corroborating source is Sam Nunberg, a former Trump campaign aide. Nunberg was interviewed by Mueller’s team nearly a year ago, in February 2018, but revealed to CNN in recent days that: “I was asked about the Trump campaign and our dealings with the NRA.”
Nunberg is a famously problematic source. He worked with Roger Stone to turn “Build the Wall” into a central focus of then-candidate Trump’s campaign speeches. (“We thought it was fucking genius,” Nunberg told Rolling Stone in August 2017, “It’s marketing, it’s branding. Mexico would pay for it, it’s licensing. It’s what he does. It’s Trump!”) He initially vowed he’d rather go to jail than sit for questioning by the special counsel. And it’s never quite clear where his loyalties lie vis-a-vis the president. As CNN itself has reported elsewhere: “He’s a man who Trump has hired, fired, rehired, refired and then sued for $10 million.” (Nunberg’s publicist did not respond to Rolling Stone’s interview request concerning this matter.)
It’s curious that Nunberg sat on this information for nearly a year. But if he is now shooting straight, and if CNN is accurate in reporting that Mueller remains interested in the NRA now, this could be very big news indeed — it means Mueller may get to the bottom of the many open questions swirling around the gun group including:
Did anyone inside the NRA knowingly participate in the conspiracy for which Butina is now jailed and her handler, Alexander Torshin, was hit with U.S. sanctions?
Was the NRA’s invitation and trip to Moscow in 2015 — which the Daily Beast reports was authorized by the Kremlin, citing “a U.S. intelligence report” — evidence of collusion by the gun group with Russian officials, or did the NRA have the wool pulled over its eyes by its Russian hosts, Torshin and Butina?
Did Russian money pass through the NRA to help fund Trump’s bid for the White House, which McClatchy reported in January 2018 was the subject of an FBI investigation?
If Russian money did wind up in NRA coffers, did the NRA know the source of the cash? And how much (if any) of the record $30 million that the NRA spent on behalf of Trump in 2016 did this Russian cash represent?
If the NRA did receive Russian money, which other Republicans benefited from the tainted largesse of 2016? As a reminder, the gun group spent more than $6 million on behalf of Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC) and at least $3 million each on behalf of Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Roy Blunt (R-MO).
Could any of this alleged Russian money have been used in the political campaigns to help seat supreme court justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh? (The NRA reportedly spent about $1 million on each nomination fight.)
NRA presidents normally serve for two years. Why did Pete Brownell, who attended the 2015 Moscow gathering, step down last May after a single year as president, being quickly replaced by Col. Oliver North? (After the initial publication of this story, a spokesperson for Brownell told Rolling Stone that he decided against standing for reelection to second year in office because the role was taking him away from his family and business.)
If Russian money was flowing to the NRA, has it since dried up? Do the NRA’s entanglements with the Russians have anything to do with its current financial mess, which the gun group has argued in court documents could leave it unable to exist?
The NRA did not respond to Rolling Stone’s request for comment for this story.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include additional information from former NRA president Pete Brownell’s independent spokesperson, which was received by Rolling Stone after publication.