In January, McClatchy dropped a heckuva scoop: The FBI is investigating whether Russia illegally funneled campaign funds to the National Rifle Association as part of the country’s effort to influence the 2016 presidential election.
The NRA spent more than any other outside group to elect Donald Trump and other Republicans, shelling out $55 million (and maybe in excess of $70 million, according to two sources McClatchy spoke with, when undisclosed spending on online ads and grassroots outreach are factored in). Federal investigators want to know if the gun group illegally got some of those funds via a Kremlin-connected oligarch named Alexander Torshin.
Details regarding links between the NRA and powerful Russian interests have been dribbling out for months. In November, Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein ratcheted up the intrigue when she sent a letter to the White House requesting any documents connected to the 2016 campaign, Torshin, the NRA, and a slew of conservative power brokers.
The NRA has largely avoided commenting on the matter. Here’s what’s known about Moscow’s courtship of the NRA, and the NRA’s subsequent role as a venue for Russian overtures to the Trump campaign.
G. Kline Preston, a conservative lawyer in Nashville with business connections to Russia, introduces then-NRA president David Keene to Torshin, a powerful senator in Russia and close to President Vladimir Putin. Torshin, who styles himself as a gun enthusiast, is a lifetime NRA member. Around this time, Torshin’s young female aide, Maria Butina, creates Right to Bear Arms, a Russian version of the NRA and the first group of its kind in the country.
After Preston petitions the Tennessee Secretary of State’s office, Torshin travels to Tennessee as an international observer of the 2012 presidential election.
Butina and Torshin host Keene and other American gun rights advocates at the Right to Bear Arms annual meeting in Moscow. Two hundred people take part in the event, the Washington Post will note, which includes a fashion show featuring clothes that have tailor-made pockets meant to conceal handguns. Around the same time, Spanish authorities build a case against Torshin for allegedly laundering money through Spanish banks and properties for the Russian mob. (Torshin has denied any connections to organized crime.)
Keene reportedly enlists John Bolton, a notable rightwing hawk who will serve as President Trump’s National Security Adviser, to record a video for Right to Bear Arms promoting the merits of loose gun laws. “Were the Russian national government to grant a broader right to bear arms to its people, it would be creating a partnership with its citizens that would better allow for the protection of mothers, children and families without in any way compromising the integrity of the Russian state,” Bolton said.
Butina and Torshin attend the NRA’s annual meeting in Indianapolis, where Butina is treated as a VIP. She presents a plaque to then-NRA president Jim Porter, and appears at one of the group’s events as a guest of David Keene. She is also asked to address attendees at the Ring of Freedom dinner, a special banquet that honors individuals who make high-dollar contributions to the NRA.
Torshin is appointed as a deputy governor of the Russian central bank. Meanwhile, the Right to Bear Arms hosts NRA figures in Russia for a second time. Those making the trip include Keene; NRA board member Pete Brownell (who is now serving as NRA president); Joe Gregory, head of the NRA program for donors who give $1 million or more; and NRA benefactor Dr. Arnold Goldschlager and his daughter, NRA Women’s Leadership Forum executive committee member Hilary Goldschalger. Also along for the junket is then-Milwaukee County sheriff David Clarke, a controversial gun rights icon. While in Russia, Brownell and Keene are photographed with Dmitry Rogozin, the Deputy Prime Minister of Russia who is also an NRA supporter.
Paul Erickson, a veteran Republican operative and NRA member with access to both the group’s leaders and officials in the Russian government, emails Rick Dearborn, a Trump campaign advisor. Erickson is looking to facilitate a “first contact” meeting between the campaign and Torshin at the upcoming spring convention in Louisville, Kentucky, where Trump will be featured as a speaker and receive the NRA’s early endorsement for president. Erickson writes, “The Kremlin believes that the only possibility of a true reset in this relationship would be with a new Republican in the White House.” The meeting never takes place. But at the convention, which occurs later in the month, Torshin shares a dinner table with Donald Trump Jr.
Butina, now a graduate student at American University, in Washington, D.C., hosts a birthday party attended by Erickson and Trump campaign aides. At the event, she claims that she was involved in communications between Russia and the campaign, according to the Daily Beast.
November 14, 2017
Glenn Simpson, the founder of Fusion GPS — the firm that commissioned the infamous 2016 dossier on Trump’s ties to Russia — testifies before the House Intelligence Committee in a closed-door session. “It appears the Russians, you know, infiltrated the NRA,” Simpson says. “It appears 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.
November 28, 2017
Senator Dianne Feinstein, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, asks several of the Trump campaign’s foreign policy advisers for any records of correspondence with the NRA, Torshin, Butina, or Erickson, among others.
January 18, 2018
McClatchy reveals that the FBI is investigating whether Torshin pumped money into the NRA’s coffers to help elect Donald Trump.
January 25, 2018
February 2, 2018
Senator Ron Wyden, a member of both the Senate Intelligence and Senate Finance Committees, asks Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and the NRA for any documents concerning financial ties between the gun rights group and Russia.
February 15, 2018
In a letter to Wyden, John Frazer, the NRA’s top lawyer, denies that the organization accepts any “funds from foreign persons or entities in connection with United States elections.”
March 5, 2018
Wyden responds to Frazer and asks whether any Russian money has been steered toward the gun rights group’s nonpolitical accounts in order to evade scrutiny. He also asks if the NRA has received, “wittingly or unwittingly,” any donations “from individuals or entities acting as conduits for foreign entities or interests.”
March 19, 2018
The NRA answers Wyden’s queries. In a letter, the gun group tells the senator that it accepts foreign money, but asserts that the funds are not used for elections. Additionally, the NRA acknowledges that while it does transfer money among its myriad accounts, it does so only “as permitted by federal law.”
March 27, 2018
Wyden demands more information from the NRA, pushing the organization to disclose the identities of foreign donors and explain how their contributions were handled.
March 28, 2018
Steven Hart, the NRA’s outside counsel, tells ABC News that, between 2012 and 2018, the gun group received one contribution from a Russian citizen for less than $1,000. The money, Hart says, came from Torshin, who was paying his lifetime membership fee.
April 10, 2018
In a letter to Senator Wyden, the NRA revises its statement to ABC News. Since 2015, the gun group says, it has received payments from more than 20 “people associated with Russian addresses” or “Russian nationals living in the United States.” The total amount of money, the letter says, is $2,512.85, most of which accounts for membership dues and related fees. Only two individuals made contributions to the organization, for a total of $525.