The lobbyist organization for the merchants of death, the National Rifle Association, is under investigation by the FBI to determine whether a top Russian banker with ties to the Kremlin illegally funneled money to the NRA to help Donald Trump win the presidency. McClatchy News reports, FBI investigating whether Russian money went to NRA to help Trump:
The FBI is investigating whether a top Russian banker with ties to the Kremlin illegally funneled money to the National Rifle Association to help Donald Trump win the presidency, two sources familiar with the matter have told McClatchy.
FBI counterintelligence investigators have focused on the activities of Alexander Torshin, the deputy governor of Russia’s central bank who is known for his close relationships with both Russian President Vladimir Putin and the NRA, the sources said.
It is illegal to use foreign money to influence federal elections.
It’s unclear how long the Torshin inquiry has been ongoing, but the news comes as Justice Department Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s sweeping investigation of Russian meddling in the 2016 election, including whether the Kremlin colluded with Trump’s campaign, has been heating up.
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Disclosure of the Torshin investigation signals a new dimension in the 18-month-old FBI probe of Russia’s interference. McClatchy reported a year ago that a multi-agency U.S. law enforcement and counterintelligence investigation into Russia’s intervention, begun even before the start of the 2016 general election campaign, initially included a focus on whether the Kremlin secretly helped fund efforts to boost Trump, but little has been said about that possibility in recent months.
The extent to which the FBI has evidence of money flowing from Torshin to the NRA, or of the NRA’s participation in the transfer of funds, could not be learned.
However, the NRA reported spending a record $55 million on the 2016 elections, including $30 million to support Trump – triple what the group devoted to backing Republican Mitt Romney in the 2012 presidential race. Most of that was money was spent by an arm of the NRA that is not required to disclose its donors.
Two people with close connections to the powerful gun lobby said its total election spending actually approached or exceeded $70 million. The reporting gap could be explained by the fact that independent groups are not required to reveal how much they spend on Internet ads or field operations, including get-out-the-vote efforts.
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Torshin, a leading figure in Putin’s party, has been implicated in money laundering by judicial authorities in Spain, as Bloomberg News first revealed in 2016. Spanish investigators alleged in an almost 500-page internal report that Torshin, who was then a senator, capitalized on his government role to assist mobsters laundering funds through Spanish properties and banks, Bloomberg reported.
A summary obtained by McClatchy of the still-secret report links Torshin to Russian money laundering and describes him as a godfather in a major Russian criminal organization called Taganskaya.
Investigators for three congressional committees probing Russia’s 2016 operations also have shown interest in Torshin, a lifetime NRA member who has attended several of its annual conventions. At the group’s meeting in Kentucky in May 2016, Torshin spoke to Donald Trump Jr. during a gala event at the group’s national gathering in Kentucky in May 2016, when his father won an earlier-than-usual NRA presidential endorsement.
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Torshin is among a phalanx of Putin proxies to draw the close attention of U.S. investigators, who also have tracked the activities of several Russian billionaires and pro-Russian Ukrainian oligarchs that have come in contact with Trump or his surrogates.
Torshin was a senior member of the Russian Senate and in recent years helped set up a Moscow gun rights group called Right to Bear Arms. He not only spoke with Trump Jr. at the NRA convention, but he also tried unsuccessfully to broker a meeting between Putin and the presidential candidate in 2016, according to the Times. He further sought to meet privately with the candidate himself near the 2016 NRA convention.
Torshin’s ties with the NRA have flourished in recent years. In late 2015, he hosted two dinners for a high-level NRA delegation during its week-long visit to Moscow that included meetings with influential Russian government and business figures.
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The House and Senate Intelligence Committees and Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee also have taken an interest in Torshin as part of their parallel inquiries into Russia’s interference in the 2016 elections.
In questioning Donald Trump Jr. at a closed-door hearing in mid-December, investigators for the Senate Intelligence Committee asked about his encounter with Torshin at the NRA convention, according to a source familiar with the hearing.
Alan Futerfas, a lawyer for Trump Jr., said his client and Torshin talked only briefly when they were introduced during a meal.
“It was all gun-related small talk,” Futerfas told McClatchy.
California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, sent letters in November to two senior Trump foreign policy aides, J.D. Gordon and Sam Clovis, seeking copies of any communications they had with or related to Torshin; the NRA; veteran conservative operative Paul Erickson; Maria Butina, a Torshin protege who ran the Russian pro-gun group he helped launch, and others linked to Torshin.
Erickson has raised funds for the NRA and is a friend of Butina’s. Shortly before the NRA’s May 2016 convention, he emailed Trump campaign aide Rick Dearborn about the possibility of setting up a meeting between Putin and Trump during the campaign, according to the Times.
Erickson’s email to Dearborn bore the subject line “Kremlin Connection.” In it, Erickson solicited advice from Dearborn and his boss, Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, a top foreign policy adviser to Trump’s campaign, about the best way to connect Putin and Trump.
Both Dearborn and Butina, who has been enrolled as a graduate student at American University since mid 2016, have been asked to appear before the Judiciary Committee, but so far Erickson has not, sources familiar with the matter said.
Bridges LLC, a company that Erickson and Butina established in February 2016 in Erickson’s home state of South Dakota, also is expected to draw scrutiny. Public records don’t reveal any financial transactions involving Bridges. In a phone interview last year, Erickson said the firm was established in case Butina needed any monetary assistance for her graduate studies — an unusual way to use an LLC.
Erickson said he met Butina and Torshin when he and David Keene, a former NRA president, attended a meeting of Right to Bear Arms a few years ago in Moscow. Erickson described the links between Right to Bear Arms and the NRA as a “moral support operation both ways.”
Torshin’s contacts with the NRA and the Trump campaign last year also came to the attention of Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and key adviser. When Torshin tried to arrange a personal meeting with Trump near the NRA convention site last May, Kushner scotched the idea, according to emails forwarded to Kushner.
On top of Torshin’s efforts to cozy up to the Trump campaign, the Moscow banker has forged ties with powerful conservatives, including Republican Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, the Californian whom some have deemed Putin’s best friend in Washington. In a phone interview in 2016, Rohrabacher recalled meeting Torshin in Moscow a few years earlier and described him as “a mover and shaker.”
Last February when Torshin visited Washington, Rockefeller heir and conservative patron George O’Neill Jr. hosted a fancy four-hour dinner for the banker on Capitol Hill, an event that drew Rohrabacher, Erickson and other big names on the right. Rohrabacher has labeled Torshin as “conservatives’ favorite Russian,” Torshin was in Washington at the time to lead his country’s delegation to the National Prayer Breakfast, where Trump spoke. The banker also was slated to see the presidentat a meet-and-greet event prior to a White House breakfast, but Torshin’s invitation was canceled after the White House learned of his alleged mob connections, Yahoo News reported.
Torshin’s involvement with the NRA may have begun in 2013 when he attended the group’s convention in Houston. Keene, the ex-NRA leader and an avid hunter, was instrumental in building a relationship with the Russian, according to multiple conservative sources.
Keene also helped lead a high-level NRA delegation to Moscow in December 2015 for a week of lavish meals and meetings with Russian business and political leaders. The week’s festivities included a visit to a Russian gun company and a meeting with a senior Kremlin official and wealthy Russians, according to a member of the delegation, Arnold Goldschlager, a California doctor who has been active in NRA programs to raise large donations.
Others on the trip included Joe Gregory, who runs the NRA’s Ring of Freedom program for elite donors who chip in checks of $1 million and upwards, Milwaukee Sheriff David Clarke and Pete Brownell, a chief executive of a gun company and longtime NRA board member.
Michelle Goldberg at the New York Times writes, Is This the Collusion We Were Waiting For?
In May 2016, Paul Erickson, an activist who has raised money for the National Rifle Association, sent an email to Rick Dearborn, an adviser to Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, with the super-subtle subject heading “Kremlin Connection.” As The New York Times reported last December, Erickson wrote that Russia was “quietly but actively seeking a dialogue with the U.S.” and planned to use the N.R.A.’s annual convention in Louisville, Ky. that month to make “first contact” with the Trump camp. At the convention, Donald Trump Jr. met with Aleksandr Torshin, an ally of President Vladimir Putin of Russia, reputed mobster and deputy governor of the Russian central bank.
This is one of those episodes that is easy to lose track of amid the avalanche of evidence connecting the Trump administration and Russia. But it takes on new significance because of an intriguing, potentially explosive article that McClatchy published Thursday headlined, “F.B.I. Investigating Whether Russian Money Went to N.R.A. to Help Trump.” We know of numerous secret communications between members of the Trump campaign and Russia, and favors asked for and received. This, however, is the most significant hint of a money trail. Norman Eisen, Barack Obama’s White House ethics czar, tweeted: “this could well be the collusion we have been waiting for, prosecutable as possible campaign finance crimes.”
It’s important not to get carried away, if only because a scenario in which the Russian investigation ensnares the N.R.A., probably the most influential conservative group in the United States, seems a bit too much like Resistance fan fiction, too delicious to be true. Indeed, if it is true, it has devastating implications for the entire Republican Party, since many officeholders enjoy lavish financial support from the N.R.A. Still, an N.R.A. role in Russiagate would explain a few things, including why the N.R.A. has, in recent years, developed such a close relationship with Russia.
There’s been a lot of reporting about that relationship, which is widely seen as part of Russia’s efforts to cultivate right-wing groups throughout the United States and Europe. As The Washington Post noted last year, “On issues including gun rights, terrorism and same-sex marriage, many leading advocates on the right who grew frustrated with their country’s leftward tilt under President Barack Obama have forged ties with well-connected Russians and come to see that country’s authoritarian leader, Vladimir Putin, as a potential ally.”
At least some investigators think the relationship between the N.R.A. and Russian government actors went beyond mutual admiration. On Thursday afternoon, the House Intelligence Committee released the transcript of its interview with Glenn Simpson, one of the founders of the research firm Fusion GPS. (The transcript of Simpson’s interview with the Senate was released last week.) In it, Jackie Speier, Democrat of California, asks Simpson about Russia’s interest in the N.R.A. Simpson replied that it appeared that the Russians had “infiltrated” the N.R.A. He mentioned Torshin and a woman named Maria Butina, whom McClatchy describes as Torshin’s “protégée.”
Adam Schiff, Democrat of California and ranking member of the intelligence committee, told me that the committee’s interest in the gun lobbying organization predated its meeting with Simpson. “The issue of whether there was an effort to either create a back channel through the N.R.A., or provide funding through the N.R.A., has been an issue of concern for the committee, and something we’ve endeavored to look into with the limited resources we have,” he said.
If a relationship between the N.R.A., Trump and Russia exists, Torshin and Butina appear to be the nexus of it. Torshin helped create a Russian gun-rights group called Right to Bear Arms, and Butina runs it. The purpose of the group is ambiguous. Gun laws in Russia are strict, and if people close to Putin actually wanted to change them, creating a group alluding to America’s Second Amendment seems like a weird way to do it. As Simpson said in his House testimony: “Vladimir Putin is not in favor of universal gun ownership for Russians. And so it’s all a big charade, basically.”
If so, the charade has been useful in building relationships between Putin allies and American conservatives. In 2015, Right to Bear Arms hosted a luxurious trip to Russia for N.R.A. leaders, where, according to McClatchy, they met with “a senior Kremlin official and wealthy Russians.” (Among the American delegation was former Sheriff David A. Clarke, the Trump supporter and Fox News regular.)
Last year, the Daily Beast reported on the figure Butina, a woman in her 20s who formerly owned a Siberian furniture store, cut in Trump’s Washington: “Now she’s wheeling and dealing with D.C. think-tankers, Republican strategists and a Russian bank chief with alleged mob connections.” The article said she repeatedly boasted of her role as an intermediary between the Trump campaign and Russia.
As McClatchy reported, Erickson — the author of the “Kremlin Connection” email — and Butina set up a limited liability company together in 2016. Erickson told McClatchy that the company was founded to provide Butina with money for her graduate studies, should she need it. That, noted McClatchy, is “an unusual way to use an L.L.C.”
Here’s another way L.L.C.s could be used: as an intermediary between foreign agents and tax-exempt organizations that are not required by law to disclose their donors, often called dark money groups. Indeed, in July the left-leaning Center for American Progress put out a report warning that loopholes in campaign finance laws make it easy for foreign citizens or governments to influence our elections in precisely this way.
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Of all the so-called dark money groups involved in the 2016 election, none spent more than the N.R.A. The $30 million it expended to elect Trump was three times more than the N.R.A. spent on Mitt Romney’s behalf in the 2012 election.
That $30 million, however, is just what the N.R.A. spent on the presidential race. It also backed other candidates, reportedly spending $55 million overall. The organization helped Republicans cement control of Congress. If it did so with Russia’s assistance, the whole party is implicated.
Of course, the citizenry has no way of knowing where any of that money came from. But the F.B.I. almost certainly does. We’re far from understanding what role, if any, the N.R.A. played in helping Russia help Trump. But a scandal that encompasses both the Trump campaign and the right’s most powerful lobby would be bigger than most people imagined before Thursday.
“In terms of what the Russians are doing in the United States, it’s far broader than just the Trump campaign,” Schiff told me. “In that sense when people think that the Russian intervention was just about tipping the scales to one of the candidates in 2016, they’re thinking far too narrowly.”
Curiouser and curiouser.