From Russia with Love for the NRA

It all started with a Russian mobster. Now the gun lobby is buddy-buddy with Moscow and attacking anyone who dares question the Trump-Putin nexus.

David Keene in 2011. Keene, the former ACU chair, is arguably the most powerful and politically influential president the NRA has ever hard.

The National Rifle Association’s relationship with Russia dates back to at least 2011, when conservative Nashville lawyer G. Kline Preston IV introduced then-NRA President (and former American Conservative Union chair) David Keene to 
Alexander Torshin, a senator in Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party. Torshin was also known to have ties to the Federal Security Service (FSB), the Russian intelligence agency formerly known as the KGB. Preston is an expert on Russian law whose has a white porcelain bust of Putin in his office.

In 2012, Preston invited Torshin to observe voting in Nashville, Tennessee during the presidential election. Both men claimed that they saw violations of U.S. law — while holding that Russian elections, in contrast, are free and fair.

In May 2013, Torshin was invited to attend the NRA’s annual meeting in Houston, Texas. By this time, Spanish investigators had determined that Torshin was laundering money for the Taganskaya mafia in Moscow (the money was being channeled through banks and properties in Spain). Spanish investigators recorded phone conversations that he had with Taganskaya boss Alexander Romanov in 2012 and 2013, and seized relevant documents during a raid. “Within the hierarchical structure of the organization, it’s known that Russian politician Alexander Porfirievich Torshin stands above Taganskaya leader in Spain, Alexander Romanov, who calls him ‘godfather’ or ‘boss’ and conducts ‘activities and investments’ on his behalf,” the Spanish Civil Guard reported.

Central Bank of Russia head Alexander Torshin is called “godfather” or“boss” by the leader of the Taganskaya mafia in Moscow.

None of this history seemed to bother Keene, NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre, or other NRA leaders. Torshin, for his part, said he was attracted to the NRA because it represents “‘stability’ — the credo of Putin’s reign.”
 
A few months later, in the fall of 2013, Keene traveled to Russia for a conference hosted by an organization called The Right to Bear Arms. “The former president of the legendary NRA” [Keene] spoke at the conference, and Torshin attended.

The head of The Right to Bear Arms is the enigmatic Russian national Maria Butina. At various times, Butina has portrayed herself as a Siberian furniture store owner, a “representative of the Russian Federation,” a graduate student in Washington, D.C., a journalist, and a liaison between the Trump transition team/administration and Russia. She enjoys a close relationship with Alexander Torshin.

It is unclear where The Right to Bear Arms gets its funding. What is clear is Butina’s group has not accomplished much. Russia continues to have very restrictive strict gun laws. Citizens are unable to own handguns and must license and register long guns. The NRA has voiced no criticism whatsoever of these laws.
 
On January 2, 2014, Torshin published an op-ed piece in the Washington Times in which he bragged about being a lifetime member of the NRA. “Last year, I had the pleasure of attending the National Rifle Association’s annual meeting in Houston,” he wrote. He also described Mikhail Kalashnikov’s invention of the AK-47 as one of Russia’s “greatest accomplishments.” The opinion editor of the Washington Times is none other than David Keene, who assumed the position in July 2013, after stepping down as NRA president. [Jim Porter was elected Keene’s successor at the 2013 annual meeting. Keene retained a seat on the NRA board of directors.]

In late February 2014, the Russian military invaded the sovereign nation of Ukraine, sparking an international crisis. A month later, Russia annexed the Ukranian territory of Crimea. The United States, European Union, and other democratic nations immediately enacted sanctions (i.e., travel bans, freezing of Russian assets in US, etc.).

Enigmatic figure Maria Butina presented then-NRA president Jim Porter with a special plaque at the 2014 NRA convention. Two years earlier, Porter had described the Civil War as the “War of Northern Aggression.”

In April 2014, Torshin attended the NRA’s annual meeting again — with Maria Butina. At the site of the convention in Indianapolis, Butina was given the “rare privilege” of ringing a Liberty Bell replica and presenting NRA president Jim Porter with a plaque. Butina was also a special guest of former NRA president Sandy Froman at the NRA’s Women Luncheon, and of David Keene at the general meeting.
 
At that point, however, the NRA was not ready to embrace Russia’s authoritarian government publicly. On May 12, 2014, Keene published an editorial in the Washington Times in which he criticized President Barack Obama’s handling of the crisis in Ukraine, claiming the president was too soft on Putin:

What Mr. Putin is discovering is that no one in the West these days is willing or able to do much either to check Russia’s aggression or to stand up for their friends. The United States under President Obama’s leadership is content to issue rhetorical denunciations, insult Mr. Putin by claiming he runs a second-rate country that doesn’t understand the times in which we live, and deny he and his friends visas to visit the United States.

Two months later, U.S. sanctions against Russia were extended to include firearms exports. Under Executive Order 13661, the Treasury Department began to sanction Russian gun maker Kalashnikov Concern in response to the takeover of Crimea. This infuriated the NRA, which issued the following statement on July 17, 2014:

The only decent product ever produced by the USSR was the AK-47. After the breakup of the USSR and the end of Cold War, Russia has continued to produce well-regarded AK-pattern rifles that have become popular among American gun owners … While the United States government blames the Ukrainian conflict for this latest move, gun control advocates will no doubt applaud the ban on…so-called “assault weapons.”

On August 11, 2014, The Right to Bear Arms announced it would host an “open meeting” in Moscow featuring NRA “life member” Paul Erickson, a longtime Republican operative who managed Pat Buchanan’s presidential campaign in 1992. Erickson was also identified as a “friend and ally” of deceased Breitbart News founder Andrew Breitbart. David Keene probably recommended Erickson, who served on the board of the American Conservative Union (with Becky Norton Dunlop, a senior Trump transition team official).

Paul Erickson is a right wing GOP operative who originally gained notoriety as the campaign manager for presidential candidate Pat Buchanan in 1992.

In January 2015, Alexander Torshin left parliament and was appointed the deputy head of the Central Bank of Russia. He selected Maria Butina as his special assistant in that position.
 
The NRA remained outwardly critical of Russian intervention in Ukraine. They even used it as bait for fearmongering. Speaking at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) on February 27, 2015, LaPierre attacked the foreign policy of President Obama, warning attendees, “You feel it. The threats are all around us. Russia’s advancing.”

In April 2015, Maria Butina was given a private tour of the NRA’s headquarters in Fairfax, Virginia. She and Torshin also attended the NRA’s annual meeting that month, this time in Nashville, Tennessee. There the two met Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, who was speaking at the event. Torshin also ran into Donald Trump, whom he originally met in 2010. According to Torshin’s account, Trump said to him, “So, you’re from Russia. When are you going to invade Latvia?”

Butina then published an op-ed in The National Interest on June 12, 2015 in which she questioned the value of sanctions against Russia. The piece was titled “The Bear and The Elephant” and Butina opined, “It may take the election of a Republican to the White House in 2016 to improve relations between the Russian Federation and the United States.”
 
Four days later, Donald Trump announced he would seek the Republican nomination for president of the United States.
 
On July 11, 2015, Butina showed up at FreedomFest in Las Vegas, a meeting of libertarians where Trump and Senator Marco Rubio were speaking. She presented herself as a reporter and asked Trump a question. “I’m from Russia. My question will be about foreign politics,” Butina said. “If you will be elected as president, what will be your foreign politics, especially in the relationships with my country? Do you want to continue the policy of sanctions that are damaging both economies? Or [do you] have any other ideas?”

The source(s) of funding for Maria Butina’s The Right to Bear Arms organization is unknown. Alexander Torshin’s affinity for her is obvious.

Trump replied, “I know Putin, and I’ll tell you what, we’ll get along with Putin. I would get along very nicely with Putin, I mean, where we have the strength. I don’t think you’d need the sanctions. I think we would get along very, very well.”
 
Paul Erickson might have attended the Las Vegas rally as well.
 
During the week of December 8–13, 2015, an NRA delegation traveled to Moscow to meet with Dmitry Rogozin, the deputy prime minister in charge of Russia’s defense industry. [During the same week, former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn was paid to appear at Russia Today’s 10th anniversary gala dinner in Moscow beside Vladimir Putin.]

The NRA delegation included David Keene, Paul Erickson, board member and gun manufacturer Pete Brownell, high-dollar NRA donor Joe Gregory, and radical right wing Milwaukee County, Wisconsin sheriff David A. Clarke. The Right to Bear Arms paid $6,000 for Clarke’s meals, hotel, transportation, and entertainment. Brownell covered the rest of Clarke’s expenses, including his airfare and visas. It’s unknown who paid for the rest of the delegates. 
 
“Rogozin is chairman of the Russian Shooting Federation and his board hosted a tour of Federation HQ for us while we were there,” Keene explained. “It was non-political. There were at least 30 in attendance and our interaction consisted of thanking him and his board for the tour.” Rogozin tweeted that they discussed an upcoming rifle competition in Russia. Alexander Torshin was present for the meetings.

Russian deputy prime minister Dmitry Rogozin tweeted the following photo of his meeting with the NRA delegation on December 12, 2015. Alexander Torshin was present at the meeting (top right).

The trip generated controversy because Rogozin was an individual subject of U.S. sanctions because of his role in Russia’s invasion of Eastern Ukraine. Rogozin is the former leader of the ultra-right party Rodina (Motherland) and has advocated for the restoration of the Russian Empire, to include Alaska, which he calls “Russian America.” From 2008 to 2011, he served as the Russian ambassador to NATO, where he focused on preventing Ukraine and Georgia from joining NATO. Rogozin has also bragged about Russia’s “first strike” cyberwarfare capability.
 
Under the terms of U.S. sanctions, the NRA delegation’s visit with Rogozin would not have been illegal unless the two sides did business together. Keene claims that did not happen — which begs the question of why he brought multi-millionaire pharma king Joe Gregory along for the ride. Even if business was not discussed, however, it’s difficult to believe the two sides did not at least talk about the sanctions against Russian firearms exports. The presence of GOP campaign operative Erickson and conservative firebrand Clarke also suggests that the meetings had a political component. During the trip, Sheriff Clarke tweeted a photo of a Russian military officer standing alongside him with the caption, “Red Square near the Kremlin with a Russian officer. Met earlier with Russian Foreign Minister [Sergey Lavrov] who spoke on Mid East.”

Radical Sheriff David A. Clarke’s tweet suggests the NRA’s December 2015 trip to Moscow might have involved political discussions with Russia’s foreign minister.

In February 2016, Paul Erickson and Maria Butina formed a limited liability corporation called Bridges, LLC. It is unclear what this organization, based out of South Dakota, actually does.

Taganskaya mafia boss Alexander Romanov was sentenced to almost four years in a Spanish prison in May 2016, after pleading guilty to illegal transactions. Alexander Torshin claims that he hasn’t spoken with his good friend Romanov since November 2013. Taganskaya’s criminal activity has continued in Spain even with Romanov behind bars.
 
That same month, on May 20, 2016, the NRA endorsed Donald Trump for president of the United States at their annual meeting in Louisville, Kentucky. [The NRA would ultimately spend more than $30 million to elect Trump — more than Trump’s top super PAC.] Also present at the convention was Torshin, who shared a table with Donald Trump, Jr. at one of the event’s private dinners at a Louisville restaurant.
 
The NRA leadership was still not ready to get into bed with Vladimir Putin publicly, however. On the same day he endorsed Trump onstage at the convention, NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre described “a brazenly emboldened Russia” as a foreign policy disaster of the Obama administration.

The NRA endorsed Donald Trump for president on May 20, 2016, despite the billionaire’s shaky position on guns. Trump had previously announced his support for the federal Assault Weapons Ban, waiting periods for gun purchases, and efforts to deny gun sales to suspected terrorists, among other gun control policies.

On July 22, 2016, WikiLeaks released thousands of hacked emails from top aides at the Democratic National Committee (DNC). The emails raised questions about whether the DNC favored Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign over that of Bernie Sanders.
 
The first hint that the NRA’s position on Russia might be changing occurred on July 28, 2016. On that day, John Bolton — a foreign policy surrogate for the NRA and chairman of their International Affairs Subcommittee — appeared on Breitbart News Daily with SiriusXM host Stephen Bannon to defend presidential candidate Donald Trump after Trump urged Russia to continue its cyberattacks on his opponent (“Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails [on Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s private server] that are missing.”). Bolton told Bannon, “I think the Democrats are scared to death that the Russians, or somebody, does have all those emails…about the Clinton Foundation.”

Donald Trump, Jr. had dinner with Alexander Torshin at the 2016 NRA annual meeting.

One month later, Bannon was named Donald Trump’s campaign manager after Paul Manafort resigned from the position amidst investigations into his lobbying history in Ukraine, where he supported pro-Russian interests.

On October 7, 2016, the U.S. intelligence community released a report indicating that the Russian government was responsible for hacking the DNC emails that were released by WikiLeaks.
 
Donald Trump was elected the 45th President of the United States on November 8, 2016.

Butina celebrated her birthday with a costume party on November 12, 2016 in Washington, DC. Present at the party were several of Trump’s campaign consultants.
 
On January 2, 2017, David Keene published an op-ed in the Washington Times in which he reversed his longstanding position on Vladimir Putin. Keene titled his piece “Confusing Putin with the Old Soviet Threat” and wrote:

We seem prepared to believe any evil of Vladimir Putin’s Russia, which has with its second-rate military establishment and failing economy somehow morphed in the minds of many Americans into a greater threat than the old Soviet Union. Hillary Clinton and [Clinton campaign chair] John Podesta are convinced Mr. Putin cost her the White House and that President-elect Donald Trump might as well be working for the Kremlin … [Putin] is an internally popular Russian nationalist who runs what is, by U.S. standards, a crony capitalist autocracy and has acted internationally in ways that deserve condemnation, but he is neither Hitler nor Stalin … It would be a mistake to conclude that Moscow’s historically typical meddling in its own neighborhood makes it as great a threat to us and our interests as the old Soviet Union.

Four days later, the U.S. intelligence community declassified a report which concluded that “Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the US presidential election,” with the specific goal of harming Hillary Clinton’s “electability and potential presidency.” “We further assess Putin and the Russian Government developed a clear preference for President-elect Trump,” the report stated.
 
On Inauguration Day — January 20, 2017 — Maria Butina and Paul Erickson attended the invitation-only Freedom Ball to celebrate Donald Trump’s swearing in as President of the United States.

A meeting between Torshin, Butina and newly-elected President Donald Trump was canceled at the last minute at the National Prayer Breakfast on February 2, 2017. The three had been scheduled to meet in a waiting room at the Washington Hilton just before the event started. “Late the night before, we were told that all meet and greets were off,” said Butina. A Trump administration official flagged Torshin at the last minute as a figure with “baggage” (ties to organized crime in Russia).

NRA-TV host Grant Stinchfield suggested rooting out “Obama loyalists” in government in order to stop investigations into Donald Trump’s ties with Russia.

During the February 15, 2017 edition of NRA-TV’s Live Updates, host Grant Stinchfield discussed a New York Times article that had appeared a day earlier. The article stated that “American law enforcement and intelligence agencies intercepted [communications between members of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and senior Russian intelligence officials] around the same time they were discovering evidence that Russia was trying to disrupt the presidential election by hacking into the Democratic National Committee.” Stinchfield commented:

You know there’s a big issue in Washington now, all this discussion over what’s been going on with Russia, the Trump administration, Michael Flynn, the national security adviser, who [has now resigned because of unreported contacts with the Russian Ambassador to the United States] … I believe what is going on in Washington is you have a concerted effort with Obama loyalists inside these bureaucratic agencies, from the Justice Department to the intelligence community, trying to undermine [President Donald Trump] every step of the way. Is there anything Congress can do to root out those loyalists who are really, I believe, trying to destroy America from the inside?
AT CPAC 2017, NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre suggested that U.S. intelligence officials helping to unravel ties between Team Trump and Russia should be “hanged for treason.”

On February 24, 2017, CEO Wayne LaPierre spoke at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). In reference to reporters and average Americans concerned about the Trump administration’s ties to Vladimir Putin and Russia, LaPierre mocked, “They’re horrified. They’re all afret over the Russian-American equation.” He added, “Even more alarming is they’ve apparently found willing co-conspirators among some in the U.S. intelligence community.” [At least six different U.S. intelligence agencies are currently investigating the administration’s ties to Russia after Putin’s government interfered in the 2016 presidential election]. In the past, LaPierre told CPAC, these U.S. intelligence officials would have been “hanged for treason.”

From April 27–30, 2017, the NRA conducted its annual meeting in Atlanta, Georgia. With the media notified to look for them, Alexander Torshin and Maria Butina apparently missed their first NRA meeting in years.

On June 8, 2017, NRA-TV host Grant Stinchfield attacked [fired] FBI Director James Comey on the same day that Comey testified in an open session before the Senate Intelligence Committee. Stinchfield told listeners:

As I look and listen to this hearing, what I see is James Comey being questioned. One, being led by the Democrats to try to sink Donald Trump, and two, by the Republicans trying to get to the heart of what this hearing is all about. Did Donald Trump try to obstruct justice when it came to this Russian investigation in any way? A direct quote when he was asked about this by the chairman of the committee, a Republican, “Did Donald Trump ever ask you to stop the Russian investigation?” James Comey’s answer, “No.” “Did he ever try to obstruct justice in any way?” James Comey’s answer, “No.”

In truth, Comey responded as follows to the question referenced by Stinchfield (asked by committee chair Senator Richard Burr):

I don’t think it’s for me to say whether the conversation I had with the president was an effort to obstruct. I took it as a very disturbing thing, very concerning, but that’s a conclusion I’m sure the special counsel [former FBI director Robert Mueller] will work towards to try and understand what the intention was there and whether that’s an offense.

The Wall Street Journal published a story on July 13, 2017 about the remarkable turn-around of Kalashnikov Concern after the company’s plans to open a production facility in the United States were blocked by sanctions imposed in 2014. By expanding its exports to countries in Asia, Africa and elsewhere, Kalashnikov more than doubled its revenues in 2016 to $300 million. Revenues were forecast to increase a further twofold in 2017.

In a segment on NRA-TV on July 18, 2017, host Grant Stinchfield attacked the Washington Post for reporting on NRA board member David Keene’s ties to Alexander Torshin, stating, “The fake news outlet even went so far as to make the blatantly false claim that the NRA had illegal ties to Russia.”


Analysis

The NRA was clearly maintaining its distance from Russia during the lead-in to the November 2016 presidential election (with most of the country expecting Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton to coast to victory), but once Donald Trump was elected, their trepidation vanished. Since that time, the NRA has underplayed the dangers posed by the Putin government and openly attacked Americans who seek investigation of Trump’s ties to Russia.

The organization that once counseled its members to stockpile firearms in preparation for insurrection against the American government is now wedded to one of the world’s most dangerous dictators and perfectly comfortable with Trump’s authoritarian style of governing.

Alexander Torshin samples the hardware at the 2016 NRA convention in Louisville.

One gets the sense that we are still staring at the tip of the iceberg. Just how deep do the ties between the NRA and Putin’s government run? 
 
The NRA’s decision to back Trump and the Putin government has an air of desperation about it; the quintessential all-or-nothing gambit. Like the Republican party in general, the NRA is seeing the demographic and cultural changes occurring in the United States and wondering how they are possibly going to appeal to a significant segment of voters (customers) moving forward. Additionally, gun ownership in the U.S. is steadily declining.

Perhaps these realities have made the gun lobby contemplate hypocritical, unsavory alliances with authoritarian leaders that could ultimately be their undoing.


Important Questions

· Did Alexander Torshin have an alliance between the Putin government and the American conservative movement in mind from the moment he attended his first NRA meeting? Did he view David Keene — one of the most influential conservatives since William F. Buckley — as a key figure who could help broker such a deal?

· Why Paul Erickson? How did an obscure Republican operative suddenly become a key liaison in the NRA-Russia-Trump relationship? Why won’t the Trump administration say whether Erickson served on their transition team?

· What was really discussed at that December 2015 meeting between the NRA delegation and Dmitry Rogozin beyond a simple shooting tournament?

· What is the purpose of the holding company established by Paul Erickson and Maria Butina?

· Did Alexander Torshin, Maria Butina and/or Dmitry Rogozin play a role in the NRA’s decision to endorse Donald Trump for president?

· It seems almost certain that Alexander Torshin and Dmitry Rogozin were aware of Russia’s interference in America’s 2016 election. Were NRA leaders aware? Did they know that the Russians were responsible for the hack on the DNC before the U.S. intelligence community shared this information with the public in October 2016?

· Has the NRA played any role in the Trump administration’s plans for an expanded police state and military? The NRA, of course, stands to benefit from a gun industry that is selling more hardware.


Additional Reading

Check out these articles from Daily Beast, Bloomberg News, TIME magazine, Think Progress, Washington Post.