I am no stranger to the Trump-Russia conspiracy theories (which have since been revealed to be far closer to fact than fiction), as I wrote as far back as October 2016 that Trump’s campaign was weirdly echoing tons of Kremlin talking points, but I was pretty skeptical of the more recent NRA-Russia connection.
Until now. The wealth of reporting by A+ sources—combined with today’s bombshell—has convinced me that there is some kind of fire at the base of this plume of smoke which seemingly gets bigger every week. Per McClatchy:
Several prominent Russians, some in President Vladimir Putin’s inner circle or high in the Russian Orthodox Church, now have been identified as having contact with National Rifle Association officials during the 2016 U.S. election campaign, according to photographs and an NRA source.
The contacts have emerged amid a deepening Justice Department investigation into whether Russian banker and lifetime NRA member Alexander Torshin illegally channeled money through the gun rights group to add financial firepower to Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential bid.
Other influential Russians who met with NRA representatives during the campaign include Dmitry Rogozin, who until last month served as a deputy prime minister overseeing Russia’s defense industry, and Sergei Rudov, head of one of Russia’s largest philanthropies, the St. Basil the Great Charitable Foundation. The foundation was launched by an ultra-nationalist ally of Russian President Putin.
The Russians talked and dined with NRA representatives, mainly in Moscow, as U.S. presidential candidates vied for the White House. Now U.S. investigators want to know if relationships between the Russian leaders and the nation’s largest gun rights group went beyond vodka toasts and gun factory tours, evolving into another facet of the Kremlin’s broad election-interference operation.
McClatchy had reported back in January that Special Counsel Robert Mueller was looking into any NRA-Russia contacts, but the story was primarily focused on Alexander Torshin, and didn’t implicate the NRA anywhere near as much as this new report. Given that the job of an investigator is to chase down all possible leads—it was pretty difficult to figure out the seriousness of Mueller’s inquiry at the time. However, there was one nugget in the report from January that now looks even weirder in light of this cozier-than-previously-known relationship between the biggest cheerleaders of violence in America and a country actively trying to subvert our way of life:
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.
If you were a federal investigator looking at this, you would be abdicating your duty if you didn’t look into whether there was a connection between those increased expenditures and the increased contacts with Russian money launderers. It’s a crime to accept or donate foreign money for use in U.S. politics. The Senate Intelligence Committee, chaired by Republican Richard Burr, is also looking into this issue as well.
This news helps provide additional context to a harrowing report that seemingly came out of nowhere last month from Yahoo’s esteemed journalist, Michael Isikoff:
The FBI has obtained secret wiretaps collected by Spanish police of conversations involving Alexander Torshin, a deputy governor of Russia’s Central Bank who has forged close ties with U.S. lawmakers and the National Rifle Association, that led to a meeting with Donald Trump Jr. during the gun lobby’s annual convention in Louisville, Ky., in May 2016, a top Spanish prosecutor said Friday.
José Grinda, who has spearheaded investigations into Spanish organized crime, said that bureau officials in recent months requested and were provided transcripts of wiretapped conversations between Torshin and Alexander Romanov, a convicted Russian money launderer. On the wiretaps, Romanov refers to Torshin as “El Padrino,” the godfather.
“Just a few months ago, the wiretaps of these telephone conversations were given to the FBI,” Grinda said in response to a question from Yahoo News during a talk he gave at the Hudson Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington. Asked if he was concerned about Torshin’s meetings with Donald Trump Jr. and other American political figures, Grinda replied: “Mr. Trump’s son should be concerned.”
A little over seven months ago, the New York Times published a report stating that “the president’s son, Donald Trump Jr., and Mr. Torshin did attend a separate N.R.A. dinner.” That was buried deep down in the story, while this lede was the primary focus of the piece:
A conservative operative trumpeting his close ties to the National Rifle Association and Russia told a Trump campaign adviser last year that he could arrange a back-channel meeting between Donald J. Trump and Vladimir V. Putin, the Russian president, according to an email sent to the Trump campaign.
A May 2016 email to the campaign adviser, Rick Dearborn, bore the subject line “Kremlin Connection.” In it, the N.R.A. member said he wanted the advice of Mr. Dearborn and Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama, then a foreign policy adviser to Mr. Trump and Mr. Dearborn’s longtime boss, about how to proceed in connecting the two leaders.
Russia, he wrote, was “quietly but actively seeking a dialogue with the U.S.” and would attempt to use the N.R.A.’s annual convention in Louisville, Ky., to make “ ‘first contact.’ ” The email, which was among a trove of campaign-related documents turned over to investigators on Capitol Hill, was described in detail to The New York Times.
This ordeal just goes to show you how difficult it is to stay properly informed during the hurricane of news that is the Trump era. News is not reported in a linear timeline, and any of the previous reports are difficult to square in a vacuum. Sure, the NRA is unhinged, but laundering Russian money into a presidential election is a new frontier for this extremist group. An allegation of that magnitude requires a wealth of evidence to believe, and we’re getting there—if we aren’t there already.
Any one of these stories are difficult to make heads or tails of on its own, but when pieced together? Hoo-boy. It sure looks like the NRA served as some kind of a conduit between the Kremlin and the Trump camp during the 2016 election. This story isn’t going away anytime soon, and with each new revelation, the National Rifle Association becomes more and more implicated in a potential crime which furthered the interests of Russia at the expense of America.
Jacob Weindling is a staff writer for Paste politics. Follow him on Twitter at @Jakeweindling.