The Russians Played the Long Game With the NRA

Looking carefully at the criminal complaint and affidavit on Maria Butina that the Department of Justice unsealed on Monday, I quickly realized that most of the information has been public for more than a year. In March 2017, Alex Altman and Elizabeth Dias published Moscow Cozies Up to the Right in Time magazine,  which detailed everything (up to that time) that the DOJ presented to the judge except the direct private communications between Butina and her boss Alexander Torshin.

What the two of them were doing was largely out in the open. They courted gun enthusiasts and conservative Christians in an effort to find allies in America who would encourage a less confrontational approach with Putin’s Russia.  They established relationships with Republican donors, strategists, and lawmakers for these purposes.  The only illegal part of these activities was the failure to register as agents or lobbyists of a foreign power.

Of course, the real issue here is the possibility that Russia funded the campaigns of Republican office-seekers (including the candidacy of Donald Trump) using Torshin’s relationship with the NRA as a cut-out and a cover.  That’s the kind of conspiracy that would make all their efforts to ingratiate themselves with the Right worthwhile.

And they did make quite an effort. You can see this clearly by looking at a timeline produced by Mother Jones. Maria Butina began her gun advocacy all the way back in 2011 when she was a twenty-one year old provincial from a remote Siberian town. That’s the year that she established the Right to Bear Arms special interest group to advocate for gun rights in Russia. It’s also the year that Torshin first attended an NRA conference and become a donor.

2011: Torshin, then a Russian senator, is introduced to NRA President David Keene through G. Kline Preston IV, a lawyer from Nashville, Tennessee, who had been doing business in Russia for years. Preston later tells the Washington Post, “The value system of Southern Christians and the value system of Russians are very much in line.”

2011: Maria Butina, in her early 20s, creates Right to Bear Arms, aiming to seed a gun rights movement in Russia.

2011: US gun manufacturer Arsenal Inc. sells 100 limited-edition AK-74s signed by Mikhail Kalashnikov—a personal friend of Torshin’s—with the anticipated $100,000 or more in proceeds to go to the NRA-ILA, the organization’s political lobbying arm.

Somewhere along the way, they convinced Paul Erickson to become their agent. Erickson is close to Grover Norquist, Ralph Reed, and Jack Abramoff, all of whom he met during their time working with the College Republicans in the 1980s. It was Erickson who provided Butina with a list of influential conservatives she should meet and cultivate. Erickson helped her explain and justify her (their) strategy to her bosses back in Moscow.  Eventually, Erickson would reach out directly to the Trump campaign:

May 2016: In an email to Trump campaign aide Rick Dearborn, with the subject line “Kremlin Connection,” Erickson says Russia is “quietly but actively seeking a dialogue with the U.S.” and proposes using the NRA convention to set up “first contact” with the Trump team. According to a New York Times report, Erickson writes that he’s in a position to “slowly begin cultivating a back-channel to President Putin’s Kremlin.” The email doesn’t name Torshin but appears to reference him as “President Putin’s emissary” who planned to attend a dinner hosted by conservative Christian activist Rick Clay. Meanwhile, Clay sends an email to Dearborn with the subject line “Russian backdoor overture and dinner invite,” seeking a meeting between Trump and Torshin. Dearborn forwards Clay’s email to Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who reportedly nixes the proposal.

In January, I explained in my piece Did a Russian Crime Boss Fund Trump Through the NRA? that there are plenty of reasons to disbelieve that Kushner actually nixed the proposal. If he really attempted to nix it, his decision was overridden. Donald Trump Jr. traveled to the May 19-20, 2016 NRA conference in Louisville and met privately with Torshin.

That meeting was the fruit of an operation that had begun five years prior.  If nothing else, we can gain some insight from this into the patience and flexibility and stamina the Russians demonstrate in their influence operations.

The first presidential target for Torshin and Butina was Scott Walker, the governor of Wisconsin.  An early favorite of political prognosticators, he seemed like a better investment than Donald Trump. The April 2015 NRA conference in Tennessee gave them a chance to court both candidates, although Trump didn’t formally launch his campaign until June 16, 2015.

March 2015: Butina announces on Facebook that she will attend the NRA’s upcoming convention in Nashville. She notes the importance of “paying attention to the politicians that we have more similarities than differences.”

April 2015: Butina posts about 200 pictures from Nashville, including one with Republican Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin, who she says greeted her in Russian. She notes he’s “one of the possible future nominees for the post of US President,” and ponders the “beginning of a new dialogue between Russia and the US.” Donald Trump also attends, telling the crowd, “I promise you one thing, if I run for president and if I win, the Second Amendment will be totally protected, that I can tell you.” Torshin, also present, later tells Bloomberg that he had a “jovial exchange” with the future president.

Again, the key question in all of this is going to be whether or not the Russians funded Republican candidates using the NRA as a cut-out. If they did, the way they did was by spending five years cultivating close relationships with the leadership of the the National Rifle Association and influential members of the GOP.

So far, no prosecutor has filed any charges directly related to the NRA’s political activities in 2016. They have Ms. Butina is custody now and she’s facing about five years in prison. If she’s willing to do the time, I’m sure the Russian government will do their best to compensate her when she gets out, but she may be willing to talk in an effort to reduce her sentence. From the looks of things, there are a lot of Republicans who stand to lose if she opens her mouth.

The saddest part is that it was all a con:

November 14, 2017: “It appears the Russians…infiltrated the NRA,” Glenn Simpson, founder of the opposition research firm Fusion GPS, testifies to the House Intelligence Committee. “They targeted various conservative organizations, religious and otherwise, and they seem to have made a very concerted effort to get in with the NRA.” Referencing Torshin and Butina, he adds, “The most absurd [thing] about this is that, you know, Vladimir Putin is not in favor of universal gun ownership for Russians. And so it’s all a big charade, basically.”

And, don’t forget that Alexander Torshin 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. So, that’s another reminder that in Russia, there’s often no distinction between the state, the intelligence services and organized crime.  The National Rifle Association was played and depending on what they actually did they could be crippled as a result.

Martin Longman

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