- REUTERS/John Sommers II
- Lawmakers want to question National Rifle Association lawyer Cleta Mitchell, who reportedly raised concerns about the group’s Russia ties.
- The revelation comes as investigators probe whether two prominent Russians illegally funneled money to the Trump campaign through the NRA.
- Both individuals were involved in efforts to arrange a backdoor meeting between then-candidate Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin during an NRA convention at the height of the 2016 election.
Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee are interested in questioning a top lawyer at the National Rifle Association who was concerned about the organization’s Russia ties, McClatchy reported.
Republicans on the panel decided to conclude the committee’s Russia investigation earlier this week. In response, Democrats released a status report detailing the leads – including witness testimony, document requests, and subpoenas – they believe the committee still needs to investigate.
Cleta Mitchell, a longtime NRA lawyer, was one of the individuals included on that list.
According to the status report, Democrats believe Mitchell “may be able to clarify … any Russian-related approaches to and interaction with the organization and persons of interest to the Committee during the 2016 election.”
McClatchy noted that investigators on the Senate Intelligence Committee are also keenly interested in speaking with Mitchell.
Mitchell said in a statement that any suggestion that she was concerned about the NRA’s Russia ties was “a complete fabrication.”
‘I know D. Trump’
The NRA is facing questions about its relationship with Alexander Torshin, a wealthy Russian banker, politician, and close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Torshin is an avid gun-rights activist and a paid lifetime member of the NRA. Torshin’s longtime associate, Maria Butina, and the Republican strategist, Paul Erickson, are also of interest to investigators.
In January, McClatchy reported that the FBI is investigating whether Torshin illegally funneled money to the NRA to help sway the 2016 election in favor of then-candidate Donald Trump. The NRA said it spent a record $55 million on the election, most of which came from a part of the organization that isn’t required to disclose its donors.
The FBI has not contacted the NRA about its investigation, the group said. It added in response to a letter from Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden that it does not “accept funds from foreign persons or entities in connection” with US elections.
Trump has said neither he nor his campaign colluded with Moscow. The Trump administration also denied in 2017 that Trump had met Torshin.
But a number of tweets sent from Torshin’s Twitter account, which NPR reviewed in depth last month, appear to indicate otherwise.
Torshin tweeted in November 2015 that he knew “D. Trump (through NRA). A decent person.” He later added that he saw Trump in Nashville, Tenessee in April 2015. The NRA held its annual convention in Nashville that year, during which Trump gave a speech teasing his impending presidential bid.
“If I run, and people are going to be very surprised, and if I win, America will be great again,” Trump told the approving crowd, which included Torshin and Butina. Butina spearheads The Right to Bear Arms, the NRA’s Russian counterpart.
Torshin attended the NRA’s convention every year between 2012 and 2016, occasionally with Butina at his side, and has met every NRA president since 2012. When the NRA sent a delegation to Moscow in the winter of 2015, it was Torshin who received them on behalf of The Right to Bear Arms.
In February 2017, Torshin was also invited, through his NRA ties, to a national prayer breakfast with the newly-inaugurated President Trump. According to Yahoo News, Torshin was scheduled to meet Trump before the event, but his invitation was rescinded after a White House aide spotted his name on the guest list and alerted others to Torshin’s murky financial background.
Butina has been cultivating her own ties with American gun-rights activists, like the Republican strategist Paul Erickson, whom she has been acquainted with since at least 2013.
Erickson invited scrutiny last year, when The New York Times reported that he emailed Trump campaign aide Rick Dearborn in May 2016, with the subject line “Kremlin Connection,” telling him that he could arrange a backdoor meeting between Trump and Putin.
He added that Russia would try to make contact with the Trump campaign at the NRA’s annual convention that May in Louisville, Kentucky.
Butina made a similar request through Rick Clay, a conservative Christian advocate. Dearborn forwarded Clay’s email to senior adviser Jared Kushner, who reportedly rebuffed the offer.
Torshin was designated to make “first contact” with Trump from Russia’s side. Erickson described him in his email as “President Putin’s emissary on this front.”
Erickson wrote that Torshin would make contact with the campaign at a dinner honoring wounded veterans that was organized by Clay. Neither Trump nor his campaign advisers attended the reception. Donald Trump Jr. and Torshin did, however, attend a separate NRA dinner the same night.
Six months later, Butina had a birthday party, four days after Trump won the US election in a shocking upset. The gathering featured several top Trump campaign advisers, according to The Daily Beast. Erickson, who was in attendance, told guests Butina was on the Trump transition team.
Two months later, Butina was one of several Putin-allied Russians who attended Trump’s inaugural celebrations.