Deciphering David Keene
What has the NRA leader been up to with the Russians?
Just hours before Labor Day, the New York Times broke a story regarding an illicit business enterprise engaged in by indicted Russian spy Maria Butina, disgraced GOP operative Paul Erickson, NRA board member David Keene, and Keene’s wife Donna. The four were attempting to broker a deal to sell a massive amount of Russian jet fuel using contacts from Ms. Keene’s Rolodex. Butina was to receive a commission of $1 million for her role in the scheme, but things fell apart quickly. Rather than reaching out to Russian energy giant Gazprom for the fuel, Butina contacted a member of her pro-gun front group The Right to Bear Arms and a coffee bean trader. According to the Times, all parties in the deal “seemed out of their depth, each projecting confidence and deep knowledge of the jet fuel business while seeming not to grasp the basics.”
It wasn’t Keene’s first failed attempt at white-collar crime (nor Erickson’s¹). Keene was forced out of his longtime chairmanship at the American Conservative Union (ACU) in February 2011 after the board discovered $400K in donations had been embezzled from the 501(c)(4). The crime was pinned on Keene’s ex-wife, Diana Carr, who was (curiously) working as ACU’s “administrative director” at the time.² She was ultimately sentenced to a year in jail.
Keene escaped criminal liability in the matter, but his political reputation was badly damaged. In an op-ed in Politico, Republican Congressman Andy Barr of Kentucky skewered him, writing, “After leading the ACU for nearly 30 years, Keene exits far below his high point as a Washington power broker — when he was counted as one of the few men with both the ear of Republican presidents and an ability to influence the grassroots.” “Now,” Barr observed, “leading Republican presidential contenders don’t have to answer to him.”
But Keene had an ace in the hole. He had joined the NRA board in 2000 and timed his ascent in the organization’s leadership to coincide with the 2012 election. Less than three months after being kicked out of the ACU, Keene was elected as the new NRA president. The move immediately restored his importance as a power broker in conservative politics.
The story goes that Keene first met Maria Butina’s boss, United Russia Senator Alexander Torshin, at the NRA’s 2011 annual meeting in Pittsburgh just before being named president. It’s likely, however, that the two men were familiar with one another before that. Keene had joined the board of directors of the pro-Russia Center for The National Interest (CFTNI) in 2009, putting him in the immediate orbit of men like former Secretary of State and honorary CFTNI chair Henry Kissinger and Russian-born CFTNI CEO Dmitri Simes, who had access to Russian president Vladimir Putin and other top Kremlin officials. Additionally, Keene’s vice-chair at the ACU, Donald DeVine, met Torshin at a “World Russia Forum” co-organized by the Russian senator in 2010.
Torshin authored a gun rights pamphlet that year that mirrored the NRA’s taking points. It advocated for the liberalization of Russia’s strict gun laws (no handguns for private citizens, national licensing & registration for long guns) and was designed to ingratiate him with pro-gun conservatives in the United States (he also pursued the religious right). It was all a ploy, however. The man Torshin was receiving his orders from, Russian president Vladimir Putin, had no intention of ever reforming Russia’s gun laws to emulate the U.S.
Whether or not Keene believed Torshin’s pro-gun activist cover story, the two became fast friends after their 2011 sit-down. They were natural allies. Both men wanted to elect a pro-Russia, paleoconservative, Republican President of the United States — by whatever means necessary. Torshin knew Keene had long lobbied U.S. presidents to adopt a friendlier foreign policy toward Russia. Keene saw himself as a “traditional” (read: isolationist) conservative like Pat Buchanan and despised Democrats and Neoconservatives (Bill Kristol, Robert Kagan, Paul Wolfowitz, etc.) for “want[ing] to scold [the Russians] every time they slip[ped] a democracy lesson.” He was preaching moral relativism and non-interventionism like his fellow board members at CFTNI.
There was something else that must have appealed to Torshin about Keene. The NRA leader was a man of few ethics who didn’t blush when he learned Torshin was an international money launderer called “godfather” by the head of the Taganskaya mafia in Moscow. Keene also shook off Torshin’s ties to Russia’s Federal Security Service (formerly the KGB). Russia had gained full access to the leader of an American lobby that spent a tremendous amount of money on regressive right-wing politicians, with few if any campaign finance laws to stop them.
After Keene and Torshin put a plan in motion to elect a Republican president, Keene brought in NRA life member Paul Erickson, a GOP whiz kid turned middle-aged scam artist, to do some G. Gordon Liddy-style dirty work.³ Erickson was introduced to Maria Butina in Moscow in 2013 and paired with her in a “covert influence operation.“ Erickson’s job was to help Butina get a visa and assimilate in the U.S., then introduce her to as many influential Republicans as possible. She sweetened the deal for him by becoming his live-in lover (a role she bemoaned). Butina’s ultimate mission, per Torshin, was to cultivate top GOP leaders to embrace a pro-Russia foreign policy using her charm, pro-gun cover and, if necessary, seduction.
Butina and Erickson focused most of their attention on the 2016 Republican candidates for president. They followed Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker for a bit, but their favorite was buffoonish businessman Donald Trump. In a bizarre spectacle in Las Vegas, Butina posed as a reporter at FreedomFest and asked candidate Trump a question about his prospective foreign policy toward Russia should he be elected. The self-declared billionaire seemed oddly prepared with a coherent reply. Speaking on camera, Trump made it clear he “would get along very nicely with Putin.”
The NRA spent an enormous figure to elect Trump ($30 million) and he triumphed over Democrat Hillary Clinton on Election Day, a result that shocked the world. Maria Butina wasn’t surprised, however. She had predicted Trump’s victory.
After the win, Butina and Erickson began making asks of the Trump transition team. There is evidence they exerted influence on the transition’s choice of Rex Tillerson for Secretary of State. Erickson, suddenly at the top of GOP politics again for the first time since managing Pat Buchanana’s failed presidential campaign in 1992, felt big enough to (successfully) ask the transition to name K.T. McFarland as the deputy national security adviser behind Mike Flynn.⁴ Most ominously, Erickson was attempting to establish a “back-channel” line of communication between Trump and Putin using the “international reach of the NRA.”
The partnership between David Keene and Alexander Torshin in 2011 had borne extraordinary political fruit in thje United States. But politics wasn’t the only area of concern for the two sides. The NRA and Russia were also eager to do business together.
In 2010 the NRA’s lobbying arm, the Institute for Legislative Action, raised approximately $2 million by selling gold- and silver-plated AK-74s autographed by Russian gun designer Mikhail Kalashnikov, the man who invented the AK-47. It’s unknown who introduced the elderly Kalashnikov to NRA-ILA executive director Chris Cox, but Torshin is a logical suspect.⁵ Keene would certainly have been privy to the fundraiser as an NRA board member.
Five years later, Keene brought a large NRA delegation to Moscow to meet with deputy defense minister Dmitry Rogozin, Torshin, and other Russian officials. The official head of the delegation was then-NRA first vice president and gun industry executive Pete Brownell. The delegates toured the facilities of a private Russian defense firm closely tied to Rogozin, ORSIS. The company’s employees filmed NRA leaders firing and praising the T-5000 sniper rifle, a weapon feared by NATO troops.⁶ A year earlier, ORSIS had announced plans to export a civilian version of the T-5000.
The Russians were also interested in expanding exports of AK-style semiautomatic firearms. A shell company based in Pennsyvlania, the Russian Weapons Company (RWC), began importing semiautomatic rifles and shotguns from Russia in 2011 for sale to American customers. When the U.S. sanctioned small arms giant Kalashnikov Concern (KC) for its role in Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine in 2014, RWC’s import business had to shutter. Curiously, the NRA went to bat immediately for KC, decrying the Obama administration’s sanction of the Russian company in an angry statement. This was odd given that American gun manufacturers benefitted from the sanctions — they were competing for the same customers as the Russians.
RWC didn’t give up, devising a plan to evade the sanctions by relocating from Pennsylvania to Pompano Beach and changing the name of their operation to “Kalashnikov USA.” In an application to Florida Governor Rick Scott’s Department of Economic Opportunity (DEO) for tax incentives, RWC admitted it was going to violate the U.S. sanctions against Kalashnikov Concern by importing fully- or mostly-manufactured firearms from the company. Regardless, Scott — a dependable NRA ally — approved millions of dollars in tax incentives for Kalashnikov USA. The incentives package was not revoked until the media got wind of it in 2017.
Would Rick Scott have given a Russian gun company preferential treatment in Florida without at least notifying powerful NRA lobbyist Marion Hammer and potentially other NRA leaders? It’s highly unlikely.
The charging documents in the Maria Butina case (felony, unregistered foreign agent) have shed significant light on her activities with Paul Erickson, including several suspicious money transfers the two made in the U.S. and Russia. But more needs to be learned about the man who deployed Erickson, NRA and CFTNI board member David Keene. The New York Times’ recent scoop about the jet fuel fiasco should remind us that Keene and his assorted family members tend to be primary drivers when it comes to illicit dealings.
1. Erickson has been scamming friends and acquaintances in South Dakota for years through bogus shells like his “senior living company” Compass Care and Landfair Capital Consulting, a California company established by the son and brother of disgraced former lobbyist Jack Abramoff, a close friend of Erickson’s dating back to their days working for the national College Republicans office in Washington, D.C.
2. The story gets even weirder. In 2003, Keene’s son David M. Keene, the ACU’s online communications director, was sentenced to ten years in prison after he shot at the driver of another vehicle from his BMW on the George Washington Memorial Parkway in northern Virginia. Keene missed the other driver’s head by inches according to police reports.
3. Keene knew Erickson from the ACU board of directors. Both men sat on the board together for several years prior to Keene’s resignation as chair in 2011. Three years later, incoming ACU chair Matt Schlapp would remove Erickson from the board over “concern about his track record.”
4. During his time as a foreign policy adviser to the Trump campaign, Flynn got paid to dine with Vladimir Putin at an RT dinner in Moscow the same week NRA delegates were there.
5. After becoming opinion editor at the Washington Times in 2013, Keene published a eulogy of Kalashnikov written by Torshin in which the senator boasted of his and Kalashnikov’s life memberships in the NRA.
6. Brownell apparently didn’t take the role Keene was grooming him for. After becoming NRA president in 2017, Brownell resigned the position on May 7, 2018 — the same day David Corn of Mother Jones uncovered video of Brownell and other NRA delegates at the ORSIS facility in Moscow. Oliver North replaced Brownell as NRA president.