As the scandal surrounding the Russian infiltration of the NRA has grown, the gun group has maintained a steely silence. The NRA has not responded to perhaps a dozen inquiries about its Russian ties from Rolling Stone alone. But an outside lawyer for the gun group and a past president of the NRA have now spoken to the New York Times for the paper’s new dispatch on the scandal.
The NRA is attempting to create distance between CEO Wayne LaPierre and the NRA officers who traveled to Moscow in 2015, at the invitation of criminal Russian influence agent Maria Butina and Alexander Torshin — the sanctioned now-former Russian central banker described in court documents as her handler — where the NRA members met with top members of Vladimir Putin’s government.
William A. Brewer III, a lawyer who represents the NRA, tells the Times: “Wayne was opposed to the trip.” Allan Cors, who was president of the gun group at the time of the 2015 meeting in Moscow, underscores this same talking point: “Wayne expressed concerns about this trip and suggested that I not participate. Wayne did not want any misconception that this was an official trip,” Cors added. “Frankly, I had similar concerns.”
Such concerns, oddly, did not prevent the trip from taking place. And the Times reports the NRA paid for at least some travel expenses. The NRA delegation included first vice president Pete Brownell (whose allegedly unsanctioned participation didn’t prevent his rise to become NRA president in 2017); Joe Gregory, who chairs the Golden Ring of Freedom, the NRA’s elite club for million-dollar lifetime donors; and past president David Keene, who had forged the NRA’s close ties to Moscow, visiting in 2013 to declare: “There are no peoples that are more alike than Americans and Russians.”
LaPierre’s new campaign to distance himself from the Russian affair must be considered in context: As Rolling Stone first reported last spring, LaPierre was happy to pose for a photograph with Maria Butina in 2014 at the NRA’s convention in Indianapolis. Butina and Torshin had each been VIPs at NRA conventions, meeting with top brass and participating in elite ceremonies. Butina tweeted about ringing the NRA’s replica Liberty Bell in 2014.
За права на оружие для граждан всего мира, – сказала я и позвонила в Колокол Свободы NRA. Это редкая привилегия pic.twitter.com/bO9qRKdLfv
— Мария Бутина (@Maria_Butina) April 25, 2014
After the 2015 Moscow exchange, Butina and Torshin continued as lifetime NRA members and used the NRA convention in 2016 to meet with Donald Trump, Jr. For his part, Torshin remained friendly with Cors, buying him a thoughtful gift in 2017.
The Times report emphasizes that the NRA officials who traveled to Russia had business interests there: “Mr. Brownell had expanded his family-owned gun accessory retailer, Brownells, into Russia in 2015, before the trip, licensing its name to a local company and collecting a percentage of sales.” Outdoor Channel CEO Jim Liberatore, who joined the NRA junket, reportedly pursued, with Butina, the idea of signing Vladimir Putin to a reality show on his network.
While the NRA-Russia connection has reportedly reemerged as a focus Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s probe, the Times indicates congressional interest also remains high. House Intelligence Committee Chairman Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) tells the paper that the GOP majority in the last congress stymied attempts to probe the issue: “We were really not able to determine how the Russians used the N.R.A. as a back channel or look into allegations that the Russians may have funneled money through the N.R.A. to influence the election,” he says. “Those issues remain of deep interest to us.” Ron Wyden (D-OR), the ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee, tells the paper: “The prospect of N.R.A. or N.R.A. officials abusing nonprofit status to work with a hostile regime and undermine our democracy is central to my investigation.”
Brewer, the NRA outside counsel, inisted to the the Times that the NRA “believes that no foreign money made its way into the organization for use in the 2016 presidential election.”