With congressional Democrats expressing renewed interest in the National Rifle Association’s ties to Russia, the gun lobbying giant is making rare on-the-record comments distancing itself from a controversial 2015 trip high-ranking NRA officials made to Moscow.
In a New York Times story published Monday, the NRA’s outside counsel and then-president insist that they did not approve of the trip, which was organized by Maria Butina, the Russian national who pleaded guilty last month to trying to infiltrate the gun group at the behest of a Russian government official.
“[NRA Chief Executive] Wayne [LaPierre] was opposed to the trip,” NRA attorney William H. Brewer III told the Times, adding that staff members were barred from joining the delegation.
Then-NRA president Allan Cors backed out of a plan to accompany the delegation, saying in a statement to the Times: “Wayne expressed concerns about this trip and suggested that I not participate. Wayne did not want any misconception that this was an official trip. Frankly, I had similar concerns.”
But plenty of NRA luminaries did make the trip, including former NRA president and Butina friend David Keene; Joseph Gregory, co-chair of the NRA’s special group for donors of $1 million or more; and then-vice president Pete Brownell. The delegation met with members of President Vladimir Putin’s inner circle, including Aleksandr Torshin, Butina’s handler.
The NRA has mostly refrained from discussing its links to Russia since McClatchy first reported last January that the FBI was investigating if Russia funneled cash to the Trump campaign through the gun rights group. The NRA said last year that since 2015 it brought in approximately $2,500 “from people associated with Russian addresses” or Russian nationals living in the U.S., leaving open the possibility that Russian money was funneled to the group via corporate entities or shell companies.
Butina admitted as part of a plea deal with D.C. prosecutors that she was working in service of a Russian-backed effort to use the NRA to gain access to the highest levels of American politics.
The Senate Finance Committee and Senate Intelligence Committee are probing the NRA’s ties to Russia, and the House Intelligence Committee is newly focused on this issue now that Democrats have regained control of the chamber.
“[We] were stymied by the then-majority,” House Intel Chairman Adam Schiff (D-CA) told the Times. “We were really not able to determine how the Russians used the N.R.A. as a back channel or look into allegations that the Russians may have funneled money through the N.R.A. to influence the election. Those issues remain of deep interest to us.”