Influence Campaign: Russia’s Courtship of the NRA and Trump
Surrogates of Russian President Vladimir Putin have actively pursued closer ties with members of the GOP and right-wing activists, using these connections as a way to enter into President Donald Trump’s inner circle. In early February, fearing a potential new chapter in the Russia scandal, the White House canceled an informal meet and greet between the president and Alexander Torshin. Torshin, a lifetime member of the National Rifle Association, has been instrumental in facilitating contacts between Russian officials and American conservatives. The nixed meet and greet was to occur at the National Prayer Breakfast, according to Yahoo News.
Torshin, currently the deputy governor of the Russian central bank, was nearly arrested in Spain in the summer of 2013 according to El País. The Spanish authorities were to apprehend Torshin at a social event and charge him with money-laundering, but they believe he was notified by another Russian official and did not enter the country. According to El País, the case against Torshin in Spain is built partially upon 33 phone intercepts with Russian Mafioso Alexander Romanov. These intercepts have lead Spanish authorities to believe that Torshin, who has operated as an official of the Russian government for more than a decade, is also allegedly a crime boss within the Taganskya criminal organization.
Bloomberg reported last summer that Torshin, who stated that he is innocent of the allegations in Spain and noted that he is not living in hiding, has connections with Russia’s Federal Security Service, or FSB. One of the Spanish investigators also noted that the ties between the Russian mafia and the state often overlap.
Torshin, and his assistant Maria Butina, have used their affiliation with the National Rifle Association to court Russia-friendly politicians in the United States. In May of 2016, Torshin had a private dinner with Donald Trump Jr. while attending an NRA convention in Kentucky. The NRA gave approximately $30 million to the Trump campaign during the 2016 election. According to TIME, this was significantly higher than the amount the NRA gave to the previous GOP presidential candidate.
The use of organizations and events to mingle and potentially influence prominent US citizens would be in keeping Russia’s efforts to influence US politics. The U.S. Intelligence Community has assessed that Putin ordered a multifaceted influence campaign directed against the 2016 electoral process in the United States. Over time, as Donald Trump’s prospects for winning the election improved, the campaign shifted from one of undermining the election’s credibility to showing a clear preference for the Republican candidate. The CIA, noting that Republican email accounts had also been hacked but had not been leaked, arrived at that conclusion in July 2016, according to The New York Times. The FBI has since agreed, at the same level of confidence as the CIA, but this conclusion did not occur until much later.
The January 2017 assessment from US intelligence noted that Russian influence campaigns are “designed to be deniable” using “a mix of agents of influence, cutouts, front organizations, and false-flag operations.” By the summer of 2015, components of Russian intelligence were actively seeking access to the computer networks of the Democratic Party.
Russia’s attempt to find useful contacts in American politics appears to have been wide-ranging. Michael Flynn and Jill Stein attended a gala to celebrate state-controlled television channel RT’s 10th anniversary in December, 2015. By this point, Flynn had already been active in the 2016 campaign holding meetings with various GOP candidates. He has the distinction of serving the shortest tenure as National Security Advisor, resigning after media reports indicated he misled the Vice President about his conversations with the Russian ambassador, Sergey Kislyak.
During the same time that the RT gala was held in Moscow, a delegation from the NRA visited the city and met with Putin’s deputy for defense, Dmitry Rogozin. Rogozin has been under sanctions related to the annexation of Crimea since 2014. Former NRA president David Keene has stated that geopolitics were not part of the discussion, at least with Rogozin. Sheriff David A. Clarke of Milwaukee County filed a report on the visit indicating that Butina’s organization was a co-sponsor of the trip. As noted in the account of this trip in The Daily Beast, Butina has close ties to Torshin.
Torshin, an alleged mobster, was described by Congressman Dana Rohrabacher as “the conservatives’ favorite Russian,” according to Yahoo News. His assistant, Butina, who was profiled by The Daily Beast, founded a Russian equivalent of the NRA. Butina, a former furniture store owner, has brazenly claimed on several occasions to have been a liaison between the Trump campaign and Russia. In 2015 and 2016, Butina was traveling around the United States, visiting campaign rallies of various candidates. She has frequently appeared with GOP advisor Paul Erickson. After the elections, she threw a costume party that was attended by Erickson and other Trump campaign surrogates.