A closer look at Russian cultivation of the NRA

NPR reports on the Depth Of Russian Politician’s Cultivation Of NRA Ties:

A prominent Kremlin-linked Russian politician has methodically cultivated ties with leaders of the National Rifle Association and documented efforts in real time over six years to leverage those connections and gain deeper access into American politics, NPR has learned.

Russian politician Alexander Torshin said his ties to the NRA provided him access to Donald Trump — and the opportunity to serve as a foreign election observer in the United States during the 2012 election.

Torshin is a prolific Twitter user, logging nearly 150,000 tweets, mostly in Russian, since his account was created in 2011. Previously obscured by language and sheer volume of tweets, Torshin has written numerous times about his connections with the NRA, of which he is a known paid lifetime member. NPR has translated a selection of those posts that document Torshin’s relationship to the group.

These revelations come amid news that the FBI is investigating whether Torshin, the deputy governor of the Bank of Russia, illegally funneled money to the NRA to assist the Trump campaign in 2016, McClatchy reported in January.

In a letter to Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., a member of the Senate intelligence committee, the NRA denied any wrongdoing and suggested the FBI is investigating Torshin, not the NRA. Neither the NRA nor Torshin responded to inquiries from NPR.

Investigations by Congress and the Department of Justice have revealed that the Russian government has sought to sharpen political divisions among American citizens by amplifying controversial social issues. Investigators have expressed concern about Russian links to the NRA, one of the most politically polarizing organizations in the U.S.

Torshin is a former Russian senator and served as the deputy speaker of Russia’s parliament for more than a decade. Known as a Putin ally, he also spent time on Russia’s National Anti-Terrorism Committee, a state body that includes the director of Russia’s internal security service and the ministers of defense, interior and foreign affairs.

Torshin’s use of NRA connections to open doors, and his 2015 claim to know Trump through the organization, raise new questions about the group’s connections with Russian officials — at a time when the organization is being roundly criticized by its opponents, and at times the president himself, for opposition to gun control.

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On his verified Twitter account, Torshin talked about how he knew Trump through the NRA, citing a connection at the group’s 2015 convention. Responding to a tweet about comedian Larry David accusing Trump of being a racist, Torshin said he knew the businessman through the NRA, and he defended him.

Translation of November 2015 tweet: “A comedian should make people laugh! Right? So he is trying! I know D. Trump (through NRA). A decent person.”

“I saw him in Nashville” in April 2015, Torshin added later, the date and site of the NRA’s 2015 convention. Trump gave a speech at that convention, the outlines of which would become familiar as his stump speech throughout the 2016 presidential campaign. The White House did not respond to repeated requests for comment by NPR but in 2017 denied to Bloomberg News that Trump has ever met Torshin.

Among his tens of thousands of tweets, Torshin also documented his attendance at every NRA convention between 2012 and 2016, only some of which have been previously reported.

Torshin’s attendance at the NRA convention in 2016 is where he reportedly met with Donald Trump Jr.

Torshin had made repeated attempts to meet with Donald Trump himself at that convention during the presidential election year, but there is no evidence of this occurring. A conservative activist with ties to Torshin aide Maria Butina reached out to the Trump campaign in 2016, saying that Russia was “quietly but actively seeking a dialogue with the U.S.” and would try to use the NRA convention to make “first contact,” the New York Timesreported.

“Putin is deadly serious about building a good relationship with Mr. Trump,” the activist, Paul Erickson, wrote. “He wants to extend an invitation to Mr. Trump to visit him in the Kremlin before the election.” Erickson has business ties to Butina, having started an LLC with her in South Dakota.

Torshin has used his repeated trips to NRA conventions to cultivate relationships with top NRA officials. And his Twitter account documents that he has personally met with every person who has been president of the NRA since 2012.

On Twitter, Torshin portrayed these meetings as more than merely casual encounters. In 2017, he tweeted that he was bringing a gift to then-NRA President Allan Cors and suggested he was familiar with Cors’ hobbies.

Translation of January 2017 tweet: “Bought a gift for NRA President Allan Cors. Tanks are his favorite topic!”

Cors is the founder of the Virginia Museum of Military Vehicles, according to its website.

In a public Dropbox album that Torshin linked to from his Twitter account, he is seen meeting with former NRA President Jim Porter as well as another former NRA president, David Keene.

His tweets suggest a longtime relationship with Keene, who repeatedly appears in photos as Torshin documents his visits, suggesting that their meeting was not merely coincidental. Keene did not respond to a request for comment.

Torshin has also met the current president of the NRA, Pete Brownell, who was part of an NRA delegation that visited Moscow in 2015.

These relationships that he cultivated appeared to open another door. Torshin came to the United States in 2012 as an international election observer and watched as ballots were cast during the Obama-Romney presidential contest in Tennessee. This was possible, he wrote, because of his NRA links.

Translation of January 2015 tweet: “I was there at Obama’s last election! The NRA card, to me as an observer from Russia, opened access to any [polling] station.”

“Tennessee resident Kline Preston requested Mr. Torshin to be an international observer in November 2012,” Adam Ghassemi, a spokesman for the Tennessee secretary of state, told NPR. The Washington Post reported last year that Preston, a Tennessee lawyer, was the one who originally introduced Torshin to Keene back in 2011.

The heat is on the Russian politician, who was alleged by Spanish police to have directed financial transactions for the Russian mob. Not only is the FBI reportedly investigating him — the bureau declined to comment for this story — but lawmakers involved in congressional investigations have also expressed interest in Torshin.

Both the Senate and House intelligence committees are currently engaged in investigations into potential ties between the Trump campaign and Russia.

Wyden, the top Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee and a member of the Senate intelligence committee, has demanded that the Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network hand over documents related to Torshin and the NRA.

“The NRA and its related entities do not accept funds from foreign persons or entities in connection with United States elections,” NRA General Counsel John Frazer wrote in response to a request from Wyden to turn over documents related to transactions between the NRA and Russian citizens. “NRA political decisions are made by NRA officers and executive staff, all of whom are United States citizens. No foreign nationals are consulted in any way on these decisions.”

Rep. Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House intelligence committee, told NPR this week that the committee’s members have asked relevant witnesses about the NRA through the course of their investigation.

“I can’t go into what we’ve been able to learn thus far on that issue. I can tell you it’s one of deep concern to me and to other members of the committee, that we get to the bottom of these allegations that the Russians may have sought to funnel money through the NRA,” Schiff said. “It would be negligent of us not to investigate.”

Glenn Simpson, the co-founder of research firm Fusion GPS, alluded to Torshin and the NRA during his closed-door testimony before the House intelligence committee in November.

“It appears the Russians, you know, infiltrated the NRA. And there is more than one explanation for why,” Simpson told lawmakers. “But I would say broadly speaking, it appears that the Russian operation was designed to infiltrate conservative organizations. 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.”

Not only are congressional investigators interested in the NRA’s relationship with Russia, but this inquiry comes as the NRA is receiving additional pressure from groups hoping to pass more gun restrictions into law and as dozens of American companies have cut ties with the organization in response to the Parkland, Fla., shooting last month.

“These revelations suggest that for years the NRA courted a top Putin ally who is now reportedly attracting scrutiny from the FBI,” John Feinblatt, president of Everytown for Gun Safety, told NPR. “NRA leaders still haven’t explained their close relationship with Russian officials in Putin’s orbit. Until they do, people will continue to wonder what the NRA is hiding.”

As this post at Crooks and Liars blog notes, NRA TV Bears A Striking Resemblance To Russia’s 2016 Social Media Posts:

Torshin’s infiltration of the NRA was a good way for him to get close to the GOP, and to Trump. But the NRA was also doing Russian-style propaganda better than the Russians, effectively pitting one group of Americans against others.

It’s conceivable that Torshin urged his NRA pals to take NRATV more in the direction of culture war — or, probably more likely, NRATV’s propaganda was seen as a force multiplier for what Russia was trying to do. Either way, this is surely one more reason Russia wanted to cultivate the group.

Links to this article:

Adam Klein, Assistant Professor of Communication Studies at Pace University, writes at Salon, The NRA’s video channel is a hotbed of online hostility:

NRA TV has become a central focus in what could be a threshold moment in the national gun debate. In the wake of the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that claimed 17 lives, a consumer activist movement has worked to peel back the tight grip the NRA holds over the country’s gun policy. The effort has driven some airlines, insurance companies, car rental companies and banks to sever their commercial and professional ties with the NRA. Now gun control activists are turning their full attention to the internet.

In the world of online politics, it’s not unusual to find videos inciting hostility. On Feb. 12, just days before the Parkland shooting, one such YouTube video featured a pundit smashing a sledgehammer through a TV set that featured liberal commentators, later declaring, “If we want to take back this nation from socialists who are out to destroy it . . . you better believe we’ll be pushing the truth on them.” But that video was not the seething production of an obscure far-right blogger. It was the latest episode of the official video channel of the NRA.

NRA TV is not merely a platform for promoting Second Amendment rights or engaging gun enthusiasts. As a researcher of online extremism, I’d contend it has has become one of the web’s most incendiary hotspots for stoking outrage at liberal America, attacking perceived enemies like Black Lives Matter and the Women’s March, and promoting the message that America is under threat from the so-called “violent left” — an especially alarming term, coming from a gun lobby.

What is NRA TV?

Given the channel’s association with the NRA, a newcomer to NRA TV might reasonably expect information on gun safety, Second Amendment rights and a community for firearms enthusiasts and collectors. Its focus is none of those things. Instead, visitors find a virtual hornet’s nest of hard-right politics.

In my work, I came across NRA TV while tracking far-right and far-left groups’ activities on Twitter. One such group had retweeted a video from NRA TV featuring host Dana Loesch calling the mainstream media “the rat bastards of the earth” whom she was happy to see “curb stomped.”

The acidic tone of NRA TV represents an astonishing evolution of an organization that began as a rifle club to promote marksmanship. Even the NRA of the 1980s, which ran TV ads on the right to bear arms, would be hard to recognize as a forebear to today’s version. My study of 224 NRA TV videos and tweets over two months in 2017 found that only 34 dealt with topics related to direct gun advocacy or gun ownership. The remaining 190, or about five out of every six posts, were trained on perceived political enemies, trading the core mission of gun rights for incessant attacks on “crazed liberals” and “hateful leftists.”

It is hard to recall an NRA that once viewed itself as a bipartisan body. Its current online hosts warn that opponents of President Donald Trump will “perish in the political flames of their own fires.” Even more provocative is the portrayal of the NRA’s declared adversaries, framed not as political foes, but as ideological and even existential threats. The Women’s March is labeled “a bigoted, fake feminist, jihad-supporting” movement, while Black Lives Matter is described as “a dangerous, hateful, destructive ideology.”

The dystopian picture that NRA TV portrays includes government officials encouraging violent protests against conservative groups, and a media-sponsored “war on cops.” The NRA believes it must be ready to defend itself and the country against these and other forces.

In a video that streamed to NRA TV’s 260,000 Twitter followers in August 2017, host Grant Stinchfield asked his audience,

“What scares me more than the North Korean crazed tyrant? The violent left and the crazed liberals who lead them. They like North Korea also pose a clear and present danger to America … Make no mistake, the lying leftist media, the elitist cringe-worthy celebrities, and the anti-American politicians — who make up the violent left — don’t just hate President Trump, they hate you.”

The insinuation that left-wing forces are out to destroy the country by sabotaging its institutions is a demagogic refrain with echoes of the anti-communist McCarthy era. But it is particularly unsettling when it emanates from a lobby that simultaneously promotes the necessity of gun ownership.

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Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America is one organization leading the charge for internet companies to drop NRA TV, citing its “violence-inciting programming.” The group is joined by some of the survivors of the Parkland shooting, such as David Hogg, who is encouraging people to boycott tech companies that carry NRA TV. A petition on Change.org, with 240,000 signatures as of March 1, is simultaneously calling on Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos to purge NRA content from his site’s offerings. And on Twitter, #dropNRATV is gaining steam, even as the channel continues to host controversial content.

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The growing wave of consumer activists has effectively placed the internet’s biggest gatekeepers in the middle of America’s hyperpolarized gun debate. As web hosts, their power to amplify or quiet controversial messages is unmatched in the modern media landscape. But in many ways, this is not strictly a gun issue. Rather, a closer look at NRA TV suggests that this is also an issue of community standards, which are well within a web host’s domain.

And in recent months, YouTube and Twitter have each demonstrated a willingness to enforce stricter terms of service prohibiting hateful, dangerous or abusive material from their networks. So the real question that these internet companies now face is whether an NRA tirade about American liberals posing a “clear and present danger” is legitimate gun advocacy, or barefaced incitement.

UPDATE: Axios.com has a list of Companies that changed gun policies amid social media uproar:

Here’s the running tally:

Note: This list will be updated to reflect new announcements.

3 responses to “A closer look at Russian cultivation of the NRA

  1. For Sure Not Tom

    The FBI looking into the NRA after the NRA took in millions of dollars from Russia.

    The corpse of Ronald Reagan just threw up in its mouth a little.