How deep do Russian efforts to influence the U.S. government run? What agencies or organizations are they attempting to manipulate?
A new report from McClatchy DC reveals that the FBI, during the course of the ongoing investigation by U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies into Russian meddling in the 2016 election are now looking at the National Rifle Association.
Specifically, McClatchy says the question is whether the NRA took Russian money to throw their support behind Donald Trump in the election:
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’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.
It is a somewhat strange question, considering all the options the NRA had.
The NRA officially endorsed Trump in late May, after he’d emerged as the leading contender for the nomination, rather than endorsing Ted Cruz. But they hardly needed incentive to endorse a presumptive Republican nominee.
Trump said all the right words on the Second Amendment, whether they were genuine or just slogans. And let’s face it – There’s no way the NRA or really any gun owner was going to support Hillary Clinton. That would be the equivalent of political suicide, not to mention it would have been a real betrayal of the values the NRA represents. Values shared by most Republican voters and millions of Americans. Oh, also that constitution thing.
What we do now know about the investigation is that there is an extra focus on how Russian money possibly funded their interference.
Recent reports detail how Russian bot farms flooded social media platforms to not just promote Trump, but to otherwise cause friction and turmoil among different factions of American society.
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.
So who is Torshin?
He’s a major figure in Vladimir Putin’s ruling party. He was a former senator, and has previously been implicated in working with Russian mobsters to launder money through Spanish properties and banks.
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.
That’s at least worth asking questions about.
My first question is why is a Russian citizen and official a member of the NRA, to begin with? Am I wrong in assuming the “National” in National Rifle Association means this nation?
I guess anybody with the membership fee can join, but it does seem a bit “off.”
But okay. Maybe that’s just me and my suspicious nature.
It was around a year ago that three U.S. intelligence agencies determined that what was an initial operation by Russians to undermine and destroy American citizens’ faith in our nation’s democracy, had developed into a drive to support Donald Trump. Because of that assessment, 35 Russian diplomats were expelled from the U.S., and sanctions were brought against Russia.
Torshin is just one of the Putin associates to catch the attention of investigators. He’s also one, along with a several Russian billionaires or pro-Russia Ukraine oligarchs that are raising red flags, due to their contact with Trump or members of Trump’s circle.
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.
High-level NRA members visited Moscow in late 2015, for a week of meetings with Russian government and business officials. Torshin hosted several dinners for those members during their stay.
Some of those on the trip included Joe Gregory, who runs the NRA’s Ring of Freedom program for wealthy donors who donate $1 million and upwards, Pete Brownell, a chief executive of a firearms company, as well as longtime NRA board member, and former Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke.
In their internal report, Spanish prosecutors revealed a web of covert financial and money-laundering dealings between Torshin and Alexander Romanov, a Russian who pleaded guilty to money-laundering charges in 2016 and was sentenced to nearly four years in prison.
The prosecutors’ evidence included 33 audio recordings of phone conversations from mid-2012 to mid-2013 between Torshin and Romanov, who allegedly laundered funds to buy a hotel on the ritzy island of Mallorca. Torshin had an 80 percent stake in the venture, the Spanish report said.
In the phone conversations, Romanov referred to Torshin as the “godfather” or “boss.” Torshin has denied any links to organized crime and said his dealings with Romanov were purely “social.”
In the summer of 2013, Spanish police were prepared to arrest Torshin, who was expected to attend a birthday party for Romanov.
A Russian prosecutor apparently tipped Torshin off, and he cancelled his trip.
When Donald Trump Jr. was questioned by the Senate Intelligence Committee in December, he was asked about that discussion with Torshin at the NRA convention.
Trump Jr.’s attorney said that it was a brief conversation, small talk about guns.
The connection gets more tangled, however.
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.
It was Jared Kushner that stopped any meeting between Toshin and Trump happening at the NRA convention.
So who else is tied to Torshin?
Among others is California Republican Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (deemed by some as Putin’s “best friend” in Washington).
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 president at 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.
There are definite lines you can draw between the NRA and Torshin. There are definite lines between Torshin and Putin. There are very likely ties between Torshin and organized crime in Russia.
How this blows back on the NRA and their support of Trump may be buried in deeper levels of the ongoing investigation into Russian interference. Or it could just be the coincidence of mutual associations and political gatherings. It’s of course within the purview and mandate of Mueller to look into it. As Trey Gowdy frequently says, it’s also important not to jump to any conclusions until there is a final report.