Kremlin discussed support for Maria Butina as she visited NRA headquarters in 2014
Exclusively obtained photos show Sheriff Clarke and NRA leaders drinking with Russian politicians and Putin confidants in 2015
Leaked 2014 text messages from Kremlin officials have shown that the Russian government was discussing support for the woman whose outreach to NRA members has drawn scrutiny from Special Counsel Robert Mueller.
Maria Butina, a Russian national and deputy to the scandal-plagued Alexander Torshin, has garnered attention from US investigators as they probe whether any Russian money flowed to the NRA in support of then-candidate Trump. The duo’s outreach to gun-rights activists in the United States dates back to 2011 when Torshin attended his first NRA convention.
Butina has insisted that her pro-gun group The Right to Bear Arms is entirely independent from any Kremlin backing.
“Hey. Help please,” reads a May, 2014 text message from Marika Korotaeva, a Kremlin official to her boss Timur Prokopenko. “Butina (for legalization of weapons)…now posts pictures with the President of the US gunsmiths now at the main office in Virginia. Against the background of statements about the supply of arms to Ukraine. I ask your help.”
Prokopenko serves as the head of the Internal Politics department in President Putin’s administration. A Russian group known as “Humpty Dumpty” released Prokopenko’s text messages to various journalists in Europe and elsewhere. These messages were then exclusively shared and verified via open-source information.
It is unclear what action, if any, the Russian government took to support Butina. She could not be reached for comment.
Among the various activities undertaken by Butina that have caught the eye of investigators is the incorporation of a South Dakota company called “Bridges, LLC” in February, 2016. Records show that the company was established by Butina and conservative activist Paul Erickson. In a phone interview last year with McClatchy, Erickson claimed that the firm was established in case Butina needed any monetary assistance for her graduate studies.
Documents filed with the South Dakota Secretary of State indicate that Butina and Erickson paid an extra fee to have the company’s incorporation expedited. It remains unknown why the two found it necessary to hasten the process.
The NRA has recently insisted that the only money it has taken from any Russians was Torshin’s membership dues, which amounted to less than $1,000. Stephen Hart, outside counsel to the NRA, told ABC News, “I know this is difficult but the political arm of the NRA has not ever accepted foreign contributions. That is illegal.” Hart said. “They cannot disclose what does not exist.”
A spokesman for the Special Counsel’s office declined to comment on their ongoing investigation.
Newly obtained photos from the NRA delegation’s trip to Moscow in December 2015 offer a behind-the-scenes look at the relationship forged by Russian officials and American gun-rights activists in the lead up to the 2016 election.
The images, taken at a party thrown by Russian politician Alexander Torshin at a Moscow hunting club, show American gun-rights leaders including Sheriff David Clarke, drinking and laughing with the Russians. The American delegation consisted of the aforementioned Clarke, NRA Presidents Pete Brownell and David Keene, NRA funders Arnold and Hilary Goldschlager, the Outdoor Channel’s Jim and Kim Liberatore and others. Hosting them were Torshin and leading Russian journalist Pavel Gusev, who has not been previously reported as taking part in any of the NRA activities in Moscow.
The presence of Gusev, the head of the Moscow Journalists’ Union, is an important new chapter in the relationship between the NRA and Kremlin allies. Gusev was appointed by Vladimir Putin as a “trustee” or trusted confidant for his campaign in the 2018 Russian elections. This appointment is a recognition of Putin’s most ardent supporters and people he trusts to appear on television and other campaign events in his place.
According to Ilya Zaslavskiy, the Head of Research at the Free Russia Foundation, a US non-profit, the group of trusted confidants usually consists of around five hundred “cultural figures and celebrities who meet [Putin] and get televised as his supporters.” These representatives are trusted by Putin himself and are often rewarded with “various small and not so small privileges after elections,” according to Zaslavskiy.
Zaslavskiy noted that Gusev can sometimes be mildly critical of the Kremlin but remains “definitely a pro-regime guy.”
At the time of the party with NRA officials, Gusev was the Chairman of the Public Counsel at the Russian Defense Ministry. In his role as Chairman of the public face of the Russian military, Gusev serves directly under Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu. Widely seen as a potential heir to Putin, Shoigu is considered an inner-circle fixture in the Kremlin.
The leaked text messages and the inclusion of a Putin confidant at a party celebrating the NRA’s trip to Moscow raises new questions about the Kremlin’s involvement in courting the Americans. In his testimony to the House Intelligence Committee, Fusion GPS founder Glenn Simpson made a point to mention Torshin and Butina. “It appears the Russians,” Simpson said, “infiltrated the NRA.”