- Jonathan Ernst/Reuters
- The National Rifle Association is fielding a growing number of questions about its ties to Alexander Torshin, a prominent Kremlin-allied Russian banker, politician, and gun-rights activist.
- Torshin, who has been described as “President Putin’s emissary” in the US, said in 2015 that he knew President Donald Trump through the NRA.
- The FBI is currently investigating whether Torshin illegally funneled money through the NRA to help sway the 2016 US election in Trump’s favor.
- He was also touted as the main point of contact from Russia’s side when his longtime assistant and a Republican strategist tried to set up a backdoor meeting between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin during an NRA convention at the height of the election.
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The National Rifle Association is under heightened scrutiny over its Russia ties.
In particular, the organization is facing questions about its relationship with Alexander Torshin, a prominent Russian banker, politician, and close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Torshin, whom the Spanish government has accused of money laundering and other financial crimes, is an avid gun-rights activist and a paid lifetime member of the NRA.
In January, McClatchy reported that the FBI is investigating whether Torshin illegally funneled money to the NRA to help sway the 2016 US election in favor of then-candidate Donald Trump. The NRA, according to the report, said it spent a record $55 million on the election, most of which came from a sector of the organization that isn’t required to disclose its donors.
Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon raised concerns about the report in a letter he sent to the NRA in February, asking the organization for more information about what, if any, funding it has received from Russian entities. Wyden also asked the NRA about whether it has any policies in place to ensure it isn’t used as a conduit for foreign money to flow into US election.
The NRA responded shortly after Wyden sent the inquiry and highlighted the fact that the FBI is investigating Torshin, not the NRA.
“As a longstanding policy to comply with federal election law, 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 added in the letter.
‘I know D. Trump’
The US intelligence community concluded last year that Russia mounted an elaborate and multi-faceted campaign aimed at elevating Trump to the presidency. And McClatchy’s January report came as the special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into whether the Trump campaign colluded with Moscow was making significant progress.
Trump has repeatedly said that neither he nor his campaign colluded with Moscow. The Trump administration also denied in 2017 that Trump had ever met Torshin.
But a number of tweets sent from Torshin’s Twitter account, which NPR reviewed in depth this week, appear to indicate otherwise.
In one tweet sent on November 8, 2015, Torshin wrote, according to an English translation: “A comedian should make people laugh! Right? So he is trying! I know D. Trump (through NRA). A decent person.” Torshin sent the tweet in response to when the comedian Larry David called Trump a racist on “Saturday Night Live.”
Torshin later added that he saw Trump in Nashville, Tennessee in April 2015, NPR reported. 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 his close associate and longtime assistant, Maria Butina. Butina spearheads The Right to Bear Arms, a Russian gun-rights group seen as the NRA’s 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, according to NPR. 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.
Butina, meanwhile, has been cultivating her own ties with American gun-rights activists, like 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.
Russia is “quietly but actively seeking a dialogue with the US,” Erickson wrote, according to the email. 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 the individual 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 “first contact” with the campaign at a dinner honoring wounded veterans that was organized by Clay, the report said. Neither Trump nor his campaign advisers attended the reception. Trump Jr. and Torshin did, however, attend a separate NRA dinner the same night.
About six months later, Butina had a birthday party on November 12, 2016, 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 also in attendance, reportedly 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.
The US’s former ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul, told The Washington Post it was “strange” that so many Russia-linked individuals attended Trump’s inauguration.
But Ned Price, a former CIA analyst who served as Senior Director of the National Security Council under President Barack Obama, said he wasn’t surprised.
“This team courted and potentially colluded with the Russians since day one without any apparent shame,” he said in an email. “I would’ve been surprised had prominent Russians NOT attended the inauguration. It was Moscow’s victory, after all.”
- Reuters/Lucy Nicholson
Conservatives’ ‘favorite Russian’
In February 2017, Torshin was invited, through his NRA ties, to a national prayer breakfast with the newly-inaugurated President Trump. According to Yahoo News, Torshin was supposed to have a personal meeting with 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 alleged illicit activities.
“He’s sort of the conservatives’ favorite Russian,” Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, who is known for endorsing Russia-friendly positions, told Yahoo News. Rohrabacher and Kentucky Rep. Tom Massie dined with Torshin and other members of Russia’s delegation to the prayer breakfast last year.
“He’s someone who understands our system,” Rohrabacher added. “His approach is, ‘I agree with you Americans: People should have a right to own guns. There should be religious freedom. The whole problem is with radical Muslims.’ We were able to have a very good exchange.”
The GOP’s ideological progression toward Putin’s Russia is not a new phenomenon. Over the last several years in particular, self-identified conservatives and members of the alt-right have openly embraced Russia’s stance on key issues – such as gun rights, religion, and same-sex marriage – that make up the bedrock of the Republican platform, and cultivated relationships with prominent Russians whose views align with their own.
This was, perhaps, part of why the gun-rights activist Kline Preston asked Torshin to come to the US and be an international election observer as President Barack Obama faced off against former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney in November 2012, according to The Washington Post. Preston, a conservative lawyer with a long history of doing business in Russia, also introduced Torshin to NRA president David Keene in 2011.
Torshin later hinted that his NRA credentials had played a role in his participation in the 2012 election.
“I was there at Obama’s last election!” Torshin tweeted in 2015, according to NPR. “The NRA card, to me as an observer from Russia, opened access to any [polling] station.”
The NRA did not immediately respond to a request for comment.