National Security & Defense

Collusion 3.0: Russia and the NRA

Russian president Vladimir Putin near St. Petersburg, January 18, 2018 (Reuters photo: Dmitri Lovetsky)
Speculation about Russian funding of the organization’s backing of Trump

Is there a “three strikes and you’re out” law for political narratives?

Democrats and their media allies were back at the Collusion Reclamation Project this week. The new and improved version is: The NRA did it.

As we have recently recounted, the first breathless attempt to suggest a conspiracy between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin to subvert the 2016 presidential election centered on Carter Page. A tangential foreign-policy adviser to the Trump campaign, Page featured prominently in the Steele dossier. Anonymous Russian sources reporting to former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele placed him at the core of an espionage enterprise that entailed hacking Democratic-party emails and negotiating a corrupt quid pro quo arrangement with Putin operatives to give Russia sanctions relief.

That storyline appears to have gone by the boards with the revelation that the dossier — already in disrepute as salacious, unverified, and convincingly refuted in key particulars — was actually an opposition-research project funded by the Hillary Clinton campaign. Facing libel lawsuits, Steele himself has taken the position that his third- and fourth-hand hearsay information was “raw” and “unverified,” passed along to American law enforcement because he thought it should be investigated, not because he was vouching for its truthfulness. His collaborator, Fusion GPS founder Glenn Simpson, has similarly offered nothing meaningful in the way of corroboration in testimony before Senate and House investigators. At the moment, the more pressing question about the dossier involves not the contents of its sensational allegations but whether they were used by the Obama Justice Department and FBI in obtaining a FISA-court warrant to spy on Page and the Trump campaign.

The collapse of the dossier led the media to cobble together a new foundation for their rickety collusion tale.  We were treated to gin-mill chatter between an even more obscure Trump-campaign figure, twentysomething climber George Papadopoulos, and an Australian diplomat. Papadopoulos told his companion that he’d heard from Kremlin-connected sources that Russia had emails that could be damaging to the Clinton campaign. Australian intelligence thought so little of the exchange that they waited months to alert their American counterparts, and the FBI thought so little of it that they waited for months — i.e., until after the election — to interview Papadopoulos.

Similarly, Special Counsel Robert Mueller thought so little of it that he let Papadopoulos plead out to a process crime of lying to FBI agents. It is no wonder: While his story is titillating for the media and Democrats because it feeds the Trump-Russia banter, it is a body blow to a prosecutor trying to establish a Trump-Russia espionage conspiracy (which you may vaguely remember as the original “collusion” claim). At best, Papadopoulos’s version of events means the Trump campaign had nothing to do with Russia’s acquisition of Clinton emails. More likely, Papadopoulos’s contacts were bluffing — neither he nor the Trump campaign got emails from Russia and there is, to date, no proof that the Kremlin had them in the first place. There being no actionable collusion evidence, Mueller was in no position to induce Papadopoulos into a collusion-based guilty plea.

So now we are on to Collusion 3.0. This gambit is a twofer in which Democrats hope to take out Trump and the National Rifle Association, another arch-nemesis.

The new angle illustrates why it is so counterproductive to entangle Russia in the bitter partisanship of the 2016 election and its aftermath. There is an important story here about Kremlin efforts not only to interfere with our political process but to infiltrate influential American institutions. For conservatives, it is a clarion call to recognize what is happening and thwart Moscow’s advances. There is no collusion evidence here — not of the kind that was the rationale for investigating in the first place, the suspicion that Trump and Putin have been in cahoots. In fact, what we know so far tends toward a contrary conclusion: Putin wanted to be in cahoots but top Trump-campaign officials kept their distance and rebuffed the Kremlin entreaties in question.

Nevertheless, we must take heed of how Russia’s outreach took place.

We must take heed of how Russia’s outreach took place.

On the one hand, it is encouraging to see that the Kremlin acted in a manner inconsistent with having blackmail material on Trump. The suspicion that Russia has such “kompromat” has animated the collusion narrative. Of course, the possibility cannot be discounted — if a porn star could shake down our randy grandee for $130K in hush money, how can we be sure Russia’s got nothing on him? From what we can glean so far, though, it looks like Russia was trying to push its way into Trump’s good graces, not extort him.

On the other hand, Russia’s courtship of the NRA, and its apparent leveraging of that relationship to seek inroads to Trump, is disturbing. There is also a new collusion theory: one based on campaign-finance law and therefore very different from the notion of an espionage conspiracy that has guided the investigation up until now. The speculation is that Russia funneled money into the NRA, which in turn lavished it on the Trump presidential bid as well as other GOP candidates — i.e., laundering donations to conceal the foreign source. We should in due haste point out that this is the Left’s wish-upon-a-star scenario (as outlined Friday by New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg, based primarily on a McClatchy report). There is at present no evidence that Russia made multi-million-dollar infusions into the NRA, much less that any political campaign knowingly accepted a ruble.

Let’s move to what we do know. Alexander Torshin is a Putin intimate and suspected Russian mafia don. He narrowly escaped arrest in Spain in 2013, in connection with money-laundering on behalf of a Russian organized-crime group called Taganskaya. Torshin was planning to attend a birthday party for a conspirator, Alexander Romanov, but he skipped the party upon being tipped off by a Russian prosecutor that he was about to be arrested. Romanov ultimately pled guilty in the Spanish case, and prosecutors have tape recordings of conversations in which he addresses Torshin as “godfather” — in the notorious mafia sense of that term. (You’ll be shocked to learn that Torshin denies any wrongdoing.)

In Putin’s regime, this sort of thing is more a credential than a scandal, so Torshin is a senator in the Federal Assembly of Russia and, more important for our purposes, the deputy governor of the Kremlin’s central bank. He also started a pro-gun group in Moscow called Right to Bear Arms. The cute name is not the only humorous touch here: The last thing Putin wants is a Second Amendment. (Indeed, the fear of Putin types is the reason the Framers gave us ours.) Yet, Right to Bear Arms has proved an excellent vehicle for enticing the NRA into cozy relations. Over the years, Torshin’s group has hosted gun-rights advocates with ties to the NRA, the GOP, and Trump; reciprocally, Torshin has been a guest at NRA conventions since at least 2013.

Alexander Torshin started a pro-gun group in Moscow called Right to Bear Arms. The cute name is not the only humorous touch here: The last thing Putin wants is a Second Amendment.

Thus has Torshin’s network come to include Paul Erickson, an NRA fundraiser, American Conservative Union board member, and longtime insider in Republican politics. Erickson has worked on presidential campaigns going back to the Reagan days — press accounts identify him as a manager of Pat Buchanan’s 1992 campaign, as well as a Mitt Romney delegate in 2012. More to the point, he has developed an intriguing relationship with Maria Butina, a key aide to Torshin.

Only in her 20s, Butina is a former Siberian furniture-store owner. She went to work at the central bank, where Torshin took her under his wing. Now, she runs Right to Bear Arms. She spends most of her time in Washington, where she takes graduate classes at American University and has cultivated a reputation as a fierce champion of gun rights. In February 2016, she and Erickson started a company called “Bridges LLC.” The company apparently does no business. In an interview, Erickson explained that the firm was established in case Butina needed financial assistance for her studies — which, as the aforementioned McClatchy report notes, is “an unusual way to use an LLC.” Though she lives in Washington, Butina’s cell phone has an area code from Erickson’s native South Dakota.

A few months after he and Butina started Bridges LLC, the NRA’s May 2016 convention beckoned just as Trump was closing out his competitors for the Republican nomination. Erickson emailed Rick Dearborn, a top Trump campaign aide. “Kremlin Connection” read the subject line. “Putin is deadly serious about building a good relationship with Mr. Trump,” Erickson explained, and “wants to extend an invitation to Mr. Trump to visit him in the Kremlin before the election.” Erickson elaborated that the Russian regime was “quietly but actively seeking a dialogue with the U.S.” and was planning to use the NRA’s upcoming convention in Kentucky as an opportunity to make “first contact” with Trump. It is clear that the contact was to be made by Torshin.

Despite the collusion hoopla, this story has not gotten much attention. That is no doubt because the Trump campaign gave Russia the brush-off. The Times reports that, while it is unclear what Dearborn did in response to Erickson’s intercession, he also got a similar proposal from Rick Clay, a Christian conservative activist. Dearborn forwarded this latter proposal to Trump’s son-in-law and top campaign aide, Jared Kushner, who rebuffed it. We also know, from court documents accompanying Papadopoulos’s plea, that the Trump campaign nixed the notion of a Trump–Putin meeting when pushed by Papadopoulos’s Russian contacts.

Torshin did attend the NRA convention. Donald Trump Jr. was also there, and the two apparently met for a few minutes. At this point, there is no reason to believe this was anything more than a quick introduction and some chit-chat about guns. The Mueller investigation is understandably interested in the meeting.  It occurred only a few weeks before Don Jr. orchestrated the infamous Trump Tower meeting at which top Trump-campaign officials (Don Jr., Kushner, and Paul Manafort) hoped to get damaging information about Hillary Clinton from Kremlin-connected lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya. Currently, however, there are no indications that there was anything to the brief Don Jr.–Torshin encounter. There was no Trump–Putin meeting before the 2016 election.

Moreover, not long after he took office, President Trump spoke at the National Prayer Breakfast. Torshin was in Washington to lead Russia’s delegation to the event and was scheduled to have a meet-and-greet with the new president. But on doing visitor background checks, security officials alerted the White House about Torshin’s suspected Russian-mafia connections. His invitation was promptly rescinded.

In sum, the Kremlin’s use of Torshin to approach Trump, at least as we now understand it, does more to negate than suggest an inference of collusion. So why is it relevant (except, of course, as an opportunity for more heavy breathing about Trump-Russia connections)? Because of the money — or at least, the potential money.

Russia is a rival, not a friend. It is a thug regime and not worth wanting better relations with until it starts behaving better.

The NRA spent about $30 million in the push to get Trump elected. That was three times more than the association forked up in favor of Romney’s 2012 bid. The $30 million is just part of the $55 million the NRA spent on Republican candidates overall — and the figure may be closer to $70 million when spending not counted in required reporting is factored in.

This is a staggering amount of money. There’s nothing illegal about spending big bucks, but in light of the dramatic spending increase in 2016 over 2012, investigators are curious about where the money came from. As Ms. Goldberg points out, tax-exempt organizations like the NRA are not required to divulge their donors. So, questions arise: (a) Did Russia, using Torshin’s sway over its central bank, circumvent the prohibition against foreign donations to U.S. election campaigns by injecting funds into the NRA — with the understanding that most of the money would go to the Trump effort? And (b) did Russia exploit a vehicle, such as Bridges LLC, as its cutout — i.e., did it use a nondescript business entity to donate to the NRA, in order to camouflage the real source of the funds?

These are fair questions. They should also be easy questions for the NRA to answer.

Even those of us who believe Putin’s goal was to sow discord in our political system and create problems for whichever candidate won the 2016 election must acknowledge that Russia was ingratiating itself with Trump. In setting up the meeting that he anxiously took with Veselnitskaya in hopes of scoring Clinton dirt, Don Jr. was told, “This is obviously very high level and sensitive information but is part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.” Even if there is no evidence of a criminal conspiracy — and right now, there appears to be none — the ongoing congressional and special-counsel investigations are supposed to be about determining the extent and nature of Russia’s interference in our election so that we can guard against provocations. One can’t complain about the millions in foreign donations that flowed into the Clinton Foundation and ignore the possibility that foreign donations poured into GOP coffers.

It is also time for Republican and conservative activists to take a hard look within. Russia is a rival, not a friend. It is a thug regime and not worth wanting better relations with until it starts behaving better — you know, maybe stop annexing its weaker neighbors’ territory, brutally suppressing dissent at home, and aiding and abetting Iran and North Korea. Why confederate with operatives of such a regime — including an operative credibly suspected of being an organized-crime boss?

Like the earlier iterations, Collusion 3.0 may not implicate the Trump campaign. But that is not the only collusion with Russia worth worrying about.

READ MORE:

Fusion GPS and The Russian Collusion Narrative

The Evidence is Undermining the Russian Collusion Story

Can Mueller Prove Russia Committed Cyberespionage?

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