The FBI is probing whether a Russian banker with Kremlin ties illegally funneled money to the NRA in a bid to help Donald Trump’s presidential candidacy, McClatchy reported Thursday.
There’s already a lot of reporting out there on the unlikely ties between the gun group and right-wing Russians. The banker at the center of the probe, Alexander Torshin (pictured), is a lifetime NRA member who’s spent years attending the group’s events and amassing a circle of influential American conservative friends. Several of those American conservatives have attended events organized by a Russian gun-rights group that Torshin helped launch.
It’s also worth noting that the NRA’s dark money arm spent more on the 2016 election than did any other dark money group. It spent three times as much in support of Trump as it did for Mitt Romney in 2012, despite the group’s antipathy to President Obama.
Here, in chronological order, is what we know on the NRA’s Russian ties:
- 2011: According to the Washington Post, G. Kline Preston, a lawyer in Nashville, Tenn. with a specialty in Russian affairs, introduces Torshin to David Keene, at the time the president of the NRA and a former head of the American Conservative Union. Torshin,then a senator in the Duma from Putin’s United Russia party, was friends with Mikhail Kalashnikov, the revered inventor of the AK-47. Preston, who did not return TPM’s request for comment, told the Post that “the value system of Southern Christians and the value system of Russians are very much in line.”
- November 2012: At Preston’s invitation, Torshin observes the 2012 U.S. elections. Preston told the Post the two men saw violations of U.S. law in the form of Obama signs too close to a polling place. Preston had served as an international observer of the 2011 legislative elections in Russia, and reported that they were fair — a conclusion at odds with that of many international observers. The same month, presumably during the same trip, he visits NRA headquarters:
Штаб-квартира NRA. Вашингтон. pic.twitter.com/4JnrEA02
— А.П. Торшин (@torshin_ru) November 8, 2012
- May 2013: Torshin attends the NRA convention in Houston, where conservative players Sarah Palin, Bobby Jindal, John Bolton, Rick Santorum, Ted Cruz, and Rick Perry address one of the most important blocs in the Republican base.
- Summer 2013: According to Spanish newspaper El Pais, Torshin is set to attend a birthday party on the Spanish island of Mallorca for Alexander Romanov, a member of the Moscow-based Taganskaya gang. Torshin, El Pais reported, is believed to be the Taganskaya boss. Twelve Spanish police officers wait for him at the airport and the hotel where he would have stayed, ready to arrest him in connection with money allegedly laundered to buy a hotel in the Spanish vacation spot. But, the newspaper reported, a Russian prosecutor tips Torshin off at the last moment, and he never shows up.
- September 2013: Keene visits Moscow to speak on behalf of the NRA at the conference of The Right to Bear Arms, a group supporting handgun legalization in Russia. The group is run by Maria Butina, then 25, who has been described as a protege of Torshin.
- December 2013: Romanov is arrested on money laundering charges in Mallorca. He will ultimately be convicted. Among the evidence: 33 telephone conversations with Torshin. In those conversations, Romanov refers to Torshin as “the godfather.”
- January 2014: An op-ed written by Torshin on the occasion of Kalashnikov’s death appears in the Washington Times, where Keene, no longer the NRA’s president, is now the op-ed page editor. In the piece, Torshin extols the NRA, mentioning his 2013 visit to the conference and his lifetime membership.
- March 19, 2014: In response to Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, President Barack Obama signs an order directly sanctioning several Russian officials, making it a crime to do business with them.
- September 3, 2014: On an invitation from Butina, NRA member and Republican operative Paul Erickson, formerly a board member of the American Conservative Union — where Keene was president before his time at the NRA — speaks at Right to Bear Arms meeting in Moscow. Butina posts about the meeting on social media, including a picture of Erickson and the NRA logo.
- January 2015: Putin names Torshin deputy governor of the Central Bank of Russia, the hugely powerful Russian state bank, which is the majority shareholder of consumer bank Sberbank. One of Torshin’s first acts as deputy governor is to name Butina his “personal executive assistant” according to El Pais.
- July 2015: Butina attends Freedom Fest 2016, a libertarian convention in Las Vegas featuring Trump as speaker. A video interview with her is featured prominently in the group’s promotional material. During the Q&A portion of Trump’s speech, a Russian woman with red hair who sounds a lot like her asks, “Do you want to continue the politics of sanction that are damaging both economy [sic]?”
- December 8, 2015: Several prominent NRA members embark on a five-day trip to Russia. They include Erickson, Keene, and gun accessory salesman Pete Brownell. Also in tow is Wisconsin sheriff and Fox News regular David Clarke, who tweets that he met with “the Russian foreign minister.” Clarke would later report that Right to Bear Arms paid for his trip to Russia. The Americans met with Torshin, Butina, and Dmitry Rogozin, the country’s deputy prime minister.
- December 10, 2015: While the NRA members are in Russia, Putin himself sits down at a gala dinner honoring state news service Russia Today (RT) with future Trump national security advisor Michael Flynn and Jill Stein. Flynn gives a talk for which he is paid $45,000 by the Russian government.
- February 10, 2016: Erickson, the Republican operative and NRA member, starts a company, Bridges, LLC, with Butina, who is now Torshin’s assistant. It’s incorporated in South Dakota. Erickson told McClatchy that the LLC was for Butina’s grad school tuition, which McClatchy described as “an unusual way to use an LLC.”
- February 14, 2016: Torshin tweets that Butina is in the U.S. “Maria Butina is now in the USA,” he writes, according to a translation by the New York Times. “She writes to me that D. Trump (NRA member) really is for cooperation with Russia.”
Мария Бутина сейчас в США. Пишет мне, что Д.Трамп (член NRA) реально за сотрудничество с Россией. https://t.co/enLxGEeCaX
— А.П. Торшин (@torshin_ru) February 14, 2016
- May, 2016: Torshin asks Donald Trump, Sr. to join him at a breakfast at the NRA’s annual meeting, this year in Louisville, Ky. According to CBS, Torshin hoped to meet the elder Trump but got his son; Alan Futerfas, Donald Jr.’s lawyer, said the conversation between the Russian banker and Trump Jr. extended only as far as “gun-related small talk.” Torshin tweets a picture of himself from the meeting months later. He’s sitting next to Keene, wearing a button that says “I’m NRA, and I Voted.”
Фото со Съезда NRA в 2016 г. Рядом со мной – мой друг – Дэвид Кин. Публикую для Ромы Псайкера (внимание – на значки). pic.twitter.com/9qBD0qWjbj
— А.П. Торшин (@torshin_ru) February 18, 2017
- June 2016: “Right around the time” of the June 9 meeting in Trump Tower between Donald Trump, Jr. and Kremlin-tied lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya, according to CNN, Christian activist Rick Clay emails Trump aide Rick Dearborn on behalf of Torshin, offering a backchannel meeting between Trump and Torshin about “shared Christian values” with the subject line “Kremlin connection.” The campaign turns him down.
- July 2016: Butina attends Freedom Fest 2016, a libertarian convention in Las Vegas featuring Trump as speaker. A video interview with her is featured prominently in the group’s promotional material. During the Q&A portion of Trump’s speech, a Russian woman with red hair who sounds a lot like her asks, “Do you want to continue the politics of sanction that are damaging both economy [sic]?”
- November 12, 2016: Butina throws a costume party for her birthday at Cafe Deluxe near American University in Washington, D. C., the Beast reported, where she dressed as Russian Empress Alexandra. Erickson came as Rasputin. Two sources told the Beast that Butina bragged she had been “part of the Trump campaign’s communications with Russia.” Erickson told guests he was on the Trump transition team, which the White House would not confirm or deny.
- January 2017: A US-based LLC representing a Russian company files suit against Torshin-controlled Sberbank in the Southern District of New York, alleging a wide variety of illegal behavior. Torshin buys Allan D. Cors, current president of the NRA, a book about tanks for his birthday, according to one of Torshin’s tweets. The book is in Russian.
Купил в подарок Президенту NRA Алану Корсу. Танки – его любимая тема! pic.twitter.com/aLdCJImQEO
— А.П. Торшин (@torshin_ru) January 15, 2017
- February 2, 2017: Torshin attends the White House prayer breakfast as part of the Russian delegation. According to Butina, who spoke to Yahoo News’s Michael Isikoff, she and Torshin expected a meet-and-greet with the president, but the meeting was nixed the night before. Instead, Torshin had breakfast with Republican congressmen Dana Rohrabacher (California) and Tom Massie (Kentucky). Rohrabacher told Isikoff it had been “a good exchange” — Torshin seemed to agree with the American conservatives that “[t]he whole problem is with radical Muslims.”
- May 10: Brownell, who attended the 2015 meeting of the Russian gun group, is elected NRA president.
- August 2017: Sberbank hires Donald Trump’s personal attorney Marc Kasowitz to represent it in court in New York. The bank denies it is attempting to use Kasowitz’s political connections as leverage.
- November 2017: Glenn Simpson, head of private political research firm Fusion GPS, tells the House Intelligence Committee that “it appears the Russians, you know, infiltrated the NRA” after having targeted “various conservative organizations, religious and otherwise.” Simpson describes Torshin as “a Russian banker-slash-Duma member-slash-Mafia leader” and mentions that Torshin “was supposed to have a meeting with President Trump after the inauguration. And somebody noticed that there had been some stories about him that weren’t pretty good.” He also mentions that Butina was “hanging around in the Trump transition” and suggested she enrolled at American University for the educational visa. He describes Right to Bear Arms as “a big charade.”
The Times said Keene “no longer works” there, though his last byline is January 2, 2018. He is no longer the paper’s op-ed section editor. TPM has emailed Keene through the contact information for his website and will update this piece with comment should he respond. An NRA spokesman did not return a voicemail. Requests for comment sent through contact forms on both of Clarke’s websites generated only automated responses, and an email address listed on a court filing, firstname.lastname@example.org, bounced back.
We will continue to update this post.