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 NRA’s annual convention in Louisville, Kentucky, 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, “FBI Investigating Whether Russian Money Went to NRA 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.”
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It’s important not to get carried away, if only because a scenario in which the Russian investigation ensnares the NRA, 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 itis true, it has devastating implications for the entire Republican Party, since many officeholders enjoy lavish financial support from the NRA. Still, an NRA role in Russiagate would explain a few things, including why the NRA 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 NRA 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, Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., asks Simpson about Russia’s interest in the NRA. Simpson replied that it appeared that the Russians had “infiltrated” the NRA. He mentioned Torshin and a woman named Maria Butina, whom McClatchy describes as Torshin’s “protégée.”
Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., the 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 NRA, or provide funding through the NRA, 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 NRA, 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 NRA 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 LLC.”
Here’s another way LLCs 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.
Speaking of the FBI’s investigation into the NRA, Liz Kennedy, the senior director of Democracy and Government Reform at the center, told me, “If this investigation in fact finds that illegal behavior occurred, this would really be the kind of illegal foreign spending that we were warning would happen.” (During the Obama administration, Senate Democrats twice tried to pass the Disclose Act, which would require greater transparency about the sources of political donations; both times Republicans filibustered.)
Of all the so-called dark money groups involved in the 2016 election, none spent more than the NRA. The $30 million it expended to elect Trump was three times more than the NRA spent on Mitt Romney’s behalf in the 2012 election.
That $30 million, however, is just what the NRA 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 FBI almost certainly does. We’re far from understanding what role, if any, the NRA 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.”