Did a Russian Crime Boss Fund Trump Through the NRA?

Back in November, the Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, had to send a sternly worded letter to Jared Kushner’s lawyer, Abbe Lowell, complaining that the production of requested documents and records was incomplete. There were several items on the list, including emails pertaining to WikiLeaks, communications with Sergei Millian, a variety of phone records, and a copy of Kushner’s SF 86 security clearance form. Maybe the most explosive omission pertained to a Russian mob boss who also happens to be good friends with Vladimir Putin and the deputy governor of the Russian central bank.

Alexander Torshin, a former senior member of the Russian Senate, has been described as “a vociferous Putin ally,” as well as a “mafia godfather.” The Spanish authorities have 33 audio recordings of phone conversations where Torshin is referred to as “boss” or “godfather.” These recordings also implicate Torshin in a vast money laundering scheme. However, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher of California refers to Torshin as “conservatives’ favorite Russian.” And it’s true. Conservatives seem to love the guy.

This past February, Republican bigwig donor George O’Neill Jr. hosted  “a fancy four-hour dinner” for Torshin at a Capitol Hill restaurant that attracted Rohrabacher and a host of other conservatives. Torshin was even slated to have a meeting with President Trump until his mob connections came up and the meeting was cancelled. The love affair appears to have more to do with guns than anything else. Torshin is the founder of the Russian gun rights group Right to Bear Arms. He has been trying to find common cause with the National Rifle Association.

Torshin’s ties with the NRA have flourished in recent years. In late 2015, he hosted two dinners for a high-level NRA delegation during its week-long visit to Moscow that included meetings with influential Russian government and business figures.

The dinners went very well. According to Arnold Goldschlager, a major fundraiser for the NRA, “They were killing us with vodka and the best Russian food. The trip exceeded my expectations by logarithmic levels.”

Jared Kushner didn’t initially disclose that he had emails pertaining to Mr. Torshin, but the Judiciary Committee had received copies from Paul Manafort and Rick Gates who had been copied on the chain. It began with an inquiry from another NRA fundraiser named Paul Erickson.

Shortly before the NRA’s May 2016 convention, [Erickson] emailed Trump campaign aide Rick Dearborn about the possibility of setting up a meeting between Putin and Trump during the campaign, according to the Times.

Erickson’s email to Dearborn bore the subject line “Kremlin Connection.” In it, Erickson solicited advice from Dearborn and his boss, Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, a top foreign policy adviser to Trump’s campaign, about the best way to connect Putin and Trump.

This email chain was previously described this way:

As CBS News reported last Friday, that “dinner invite” came in the form of a lengthy email from an intermediary who said that Torshin wanted to set up a meeting with Mr. Trump and that he was interested in setting up a meeting between Mr. Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin. The email was sent to top Trump campaign officials including former campaign chairman Paul Manafort, campaign official Rick Gates and eventually Jared Kushner who is the president’s son-in-law. Kushner’s attorney says his client said to “pass on this” and warned campaign officials to “decline such meetings.”

In other words, Erickson pitched the campaign on a meeting with Torshin and a possible Trump/Putin meeting and this pitch made the rounds before Kushner allegedly spiked the idea. Yet, it’s not clear if the idea was truly spiked or if it was modified. What actually wound up happening is that Donald Trump Jr. made a trip to Louisville for the NRA conference at the Kentucky Exposition Center. The conference ran from May 19 to May 22. And while Donald Jr. was at the convention he had a meeting with Torshin. The length and nature of this meeting is in dispute, with the Trump camp characterizing it as more of a brief conversation about firearms than a formal sit down.

But the truth here is going to matter because the FBI now suspects Torshin of illegally financing the Trump campaign using the NRA as a cutout.

The FBI is investigating whether a top Russian banker with ties to the Kremlin illegally funneled money to the National Rifle Association to help Donald Trump win the presidency, two sources familiar with the matter have told McClatchy….

…The extent to which the FBI has evidence of money flowing from Torshin to the NRA, or of the NRA’s participation in the transfer of funds, could not be learned.

However, the NRA reported spending a record $55 million on the 2016 elections, including $30 million to support Trump – triple what the group devoted to backing Republican Mitt Romney in the 2012 presidential race. Most of that was money was spent by an arm of the NRA that is not required to disclose its donors.

Two people with close connections to the powerful gun lobby said its total election spending actually approached or exceeded $70 million. The reporting gap could be explained by the fact that independent groups are not required to reveal how much they spend on Internet ads or field operations, including get-out-the-vote efforts.

This is a new twist on what was already a curious aspect of the Russia investigation. Prior to the allegation of illegal funding, the focus was more on the woman who connected Torshin to Erickson.

Erickson is closely linked with a Russian woman named Maria Butina, a well-known gun rights activist who also worked as a special assistant to the deputy governor of Russia’s central bank, Alexander Torshin.

Butina has bragged that she helped connect the Trump campaign with the Kremlin, according to The Daily Beast, and it’s possible her statements were not just bravado. Torshin requested that Trump meet with him on the sidelines of the National Rifle Association’s convention in May 2016. He never met with then-candidate Trump, but he did succeed in securing a meeting with Trump’s son Donald Trump Jr.

Now, it’s interesting that this woman was boasting about her role in connecting the Trump campaign to the Kremlin, which I suspect would involve more than arranging a brief conversation at the NRA convention. But it’s also important to note how this was reported here. Torshin had requested a meeting with Trump Sr. at the NRA convention but had to settle for a meeting with Trump Jr. If this is accurate, then the whole reason that the younger Donald was in Louisville was to meet with this money laundering Russian mob boss. Perhaps it had to work this way because Trump Sr. chose to speak at the larger annual NRA meeting in Atlanta in late April instead of attending the smaller gathering in Louisville in May.

Here’s how the New York Times reported on this in December:

A May 2016 email to the campaign adviser, Rick Dearborn, bore the subject line “Kremlin Connection.” In it, the NRA member said he wanted the advice of Mr. Dearborn and Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama, then a foreign policy adviser to Mr. Trump and Mr. Dearborn’s longtime boss, about how to proceed in connecting the two leaders.

Russia, he wrote, was “quietly but actively seeking a dialogue with the U.S.” and would attempt to use the NRA’s annual convention in Louisville, Ky., to make “ ‘first contact.’”

So, Kushner received an email saying that the Russians wanted to make “first contact” at the convention in Louisville and then Donald Trump Jr. was dispatched to this convention where he did indeed meet with the Russian gangster, but supposedly Kushner nixed this whole idea.

In any case, that was the original controversy but it has now taken on another dimension with the revelation that the FBI thinks Torshin may have funneled tens of millions of dollars to Trump through the NRA.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.