We have become inured to the Russia investigation, and the lack of focus on the National Rifle Association’s centrality to it is proof. What began as a frenzy in 2017 has become just the normal background noise to daily life (which is probably a good thing, given that the frenzy leads to events like unhinged conspiracy theorist Louise Mensch getting space on the New York Times op-ed page and face time on MSNBC).
On Friday, Robert Mueller and the Southern District of New York filed 37 pages of information about how astoundingly guilty Michael Cohen is, and they named “Individual 1” 30 times (they also said that “Individual 1” became president in 2017). That filing made it clear that Trump is in serious danger of being charged with a campaign finance felony, and the response from all of us seemed to be a collective shrug. Had those 37 pages come out in early 2017, cable news would have spontaneously combusted.
Which brings us to the NRA, and how all of us have not paid enough attention to how seriously wrapped up that organization is in the Mueller investigation. Here’s Yahoo’s Michael Isikoff in May of this year:
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.”
And McClatchy from this past January:
The FBI is investigating whether a top Russian banker with ties to the Kremlin illegally funneled money to the National Rifle Association to help Donald Trump win the presidency, two sources familiar with the matter have told McClatchy.
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.
Now, the NRA’s problems have been brought to the front lines of the Mueller investigation, as yesterday’s guilty plea by alleged Russian spy Maria Butina demonstrates. Per The Daily Beast:
Maria Butina, a Russian national who cultivated relationships with powerful American conservative activists, agreed Monday to plead guilty to conspiring to violate laws prohibiting covert foreign agents. As part of her agreement, which was reviewed by The Daily Beast, she has promised to cooperate with American law enforcement.
As a result of the deal, Butina will become the first Russian national since the 2016 election to plead guilty to a crime connected to efforts to influence American politics. After running a gun rights organization in Russia, she moved to the United States, where she spent years building relationships with conservatives in hopes of influencing a future Republican presidential administration. During the campaign season, she questioned then-candidate Donald Trump about sanctions; built relationships in the upper echelons of the American gun rights community; arranged for NRA leaders to travel to Moscow; and bragged that she was a channel between Team Trump and the Kremlin, as The Daily Beast first revealed.
Butina struck up a romance with Paul Erickson, a longtime Republican operative who has worked with the NRA for years. Robert Mueller obtained the following e-mail from Erickson to an acquaintance:
I’ve been involved in securing a VERY private line of communication between the Kremlin and key [unnamed political party] leaders through, of all conduits, the [unnamed gun-rights organization].
FBI agents also found a handwritten note in Erickson’s apartment that read “How to respond to FSB offer of employment?” (The FSB is the Kremlin’s successor to the KGB)
So if a longtime Republican operatives e-mail is to be believed, a back channel existed between the GOP and the Kremlin through the NRA (it’s hard to see how the Republican operative could have been talking about any other [unnamed political party] and [unnamed gun-rights organization]). That longtime GOP flack received a job offer from the Kremlin, and struck up a romance with a woman who admitted under oath that she was working at the direction of Alexander Torshin, the deputy governor of Russia’s central bank whom the FBI has been seriously investigating.
Combined with Trump being named in campaign finance violations on Friday and Isikoff’s report that the FBI has obtained wire taps of Torshin speaking to a Russian money launderer and that Don Jr. “should be concerned,” it sure looks like a gigantic legal storm has arrived at the NRA’s doorstep. The GOP’s refusal to probe this branch of the Russia ordeal is yet another red flag that this could be a big, big deal once we know the details of Butina’s work with the NRA.
Butina will be in protective custody for the rest of her life, which demonstrates how scared she is to go back to Russia (it also means that she has some incredibly useful information to federal investigators). While we don’t know the exact violations that the NRA is potentially facing, the overall picture looks horrible for them.
Both Robert Mueller and SDNY have named the president as complicit in campaign finance violations pertaining to paying off mistresses—which may demonstrate that they believe they can charge a sitting president with campaign finance crimes. This matters to the NRA because campaign finance crimes are what the McClatchy report said the FBI was looking into with the Kremlin and the NRA. The larger picture of the NRA’s complicity in the Russia mess of 2016 is beginning to emerge, and if you work at the NRA and don’t have a lawyer yet, you should get one ASAP. Mueller’s comin’.
Jacob Weindling is a staff writer for Paste politics. Follow him on Twitter at @Jakeweindling.