When the National Rifle Association endorsed Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump for President in Louisville, Kentucky on May, 20, 2016, Russian president Vladimir Putin had his man on the inside watching. The deputy head of the Central Bank of Russia (and alleged “godfather” of the Moscow mafia), Alexander Torshin, was attending his fourth consecutive NRA annual meeting that weekend after forging a relationship with former NRA president (and current board member) David Keene, the former chair of the American Conservative Union.
The NRA allowed Torshin to share a table with Donald Trump, Jr. at a private dinner in Lousiville. That access must have been nice for Torshin, but nicer still was seeing an organization with the influence and bankroll of the NRA endorsing the man who Russia marked to be president of the United States. Neither party was assured of ultimate victory in the general election, but certainly they were stronger working together.
That intuition proved correct when Donald Trump triumphed on November 8th of last year. It was the culmination of a successful partnership between the NRA and Russia dating back to 2011. The Russians were on-hand in Washington, DC to celebrate their great victory with President-Elect Trump, his surrogates, and their NRA counterparts.
The political winds have turned, however. Today, the Trump campaign is being investigated by at least six US intelligence agencies for collusion with Russia during the presidential election. With each passing day, new details emerge about Trump associates’ contacts with representatives of Putin’s government. Trump and Putin have even been forced to fake being at war with one another, a sorry spectacle.
That being the case, will we see Alexander Torshin at the NRA’s annual meeting this weekend in Atlanta, Georgia for the fifth consecutive year?
President Trump recently announced he would speak at the meeting. Given his administration’s recent, high-profile snub of Torshin at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, would David Keene, NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre, and other leaders dare to be seen with Torshin in public?
Then again, the NRA has never been reluctant to deal with Torshin’s “baggage” in the past…
The NRA-Russia partnership dates back to 2011, when conservative Nashville lawyer G. Kline Preston IV introduced Keene to Torshin. At that point, Alexander Torshin was serving as a senator in Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party. He was also known to have ties to the Federal Security Service, the Russian intelligence agency formerly known as the KGB.
Torshin’s ties to organized crime are also well documented. In 2012 and 2013, Spanish investigators recorded phone conversations that Torshin had with Moscow mob boss Alexander Romanov. They learned that Torshin had engaged in money laundering for the Taganskaya mafia, channeling funds through banks and properties in Spain. “Within the hierarchical structure of the organization, it’s known that Russian politician Alexander Porfirievich Torshin stands above Taganskaya leader in Spain, Alexander Romanov, who calls him ‘godfather’ or ‘boss’ and conducts ‘activities and investments’ on his behalf,” the Spanish Civil Guard concluded.
None of that seemed to bother the NRA, and Torshin was invited to attend his first NRA annual meeting in Houston, Texas in 2013. Torshin was so elated he would later brag about being at the meeting in a Washington Times op-ed (published by opinion page editor David Keene).
In the fall of 2013, Keene returned the favor by traveling to Russia to speak on behalf of the NRA at a conference hosted by a close associate of Torshin’s, Maria Butina. Butina is the head of an enigmatic pro-gun group in Russia called The Right to Bear Arms. At other times, however, Butina has described herself as a Siberian furniture store owner, a “representative of the Russian Federation,” a graduate student in Washington, D.C., a journalist, and a liaison between the Trump transition team/administration and Russia.
The Right to Bear Arms has a dismal record of accomplishment. To this day, private handgun ownership is banned in Russia and all long guns must be licensed and registered. Thankfully for Butina (and Torshin), her group’s lack of success seems to be of little concern to the NRA. They have voiced no criticism of Russia’s strict gun laws whatsoever.
In late February 2014, Russia sparked an international crisis when it invaded the sovereign state of Ukraine. The following month, the Putin government forcibly annexed the territory of Crimea. The United States, the European Union, and other democratic nations immediately enacted sanctions against Russia (i.e., travel bans, freezing of Russian assets in US, etc.) in response to these acts of aggression.
Once again, however, this controversy did nothing to deter the NRA from engaging Putin’s government. Just weeks later, in April 2014, Torshin attended his second NRA annual meeting in Indianapolis, Indiana with Butina in tow. Butina was even given the “rare privilege” of ringing a Liberty Bell replica at an event honoring the NRA’s top donors.
When the United States extended its sanctions against Russia in July 2014 to include firearms exports, the relationship between the NRA and Moscow was further cemented. The NRA railed against the decision, writing, “The only decent product ever produced by the USSR was the AK-47 … While the United States government blames the Ukrainian conflict for this latest move, gun control advocates will no doubt applaud the ban on…so-called ‘assault weapons.’”
In January 2015, Torshin left the Russian parliament and was appointed by Putin to be the deputy head of the Central Bank of Russia. He selected Maria Butina as his special assistant in that position. In April of that year, Butina was given a private tour of the NRA’s headquarters in Fairfax, Virginia. She and Torshin also returned to the NRA’s annual meeting, this time in Nashville, Tennessee, where Torshin bumped into businessman Donald Trump (Torshin says he originally met Trump in 2010).
Meanwhile, Butina was signaling Russia’s preference in the next presidential election in the pages of The National Interest. In a June 12, 2015 op-ed titled “The Bear and the Elephant,” she wrote, “It may take the election of a Republican to the White House in 2016 to improve relations between the Russian Federation and the United States.”
Four days after the op-ed appeared, Donald Trump announced he would seek the Republican nomination for President of the United States. Butina appeared at FreedomFest in Las Vegas, a gathering of libertarians at which Trump and Senator Marcio Rubio were speaking. Butina presented herself as a reporter and asked Trump, “If you will be elected as president, what will be your foreign politics, especially in the relationships with my country? Do you want to continue the policy of sanctions that are damaging both economies? Or [do you] have any other ideas?” “I would get along very nicely with Putin, I mean, where we have the strength,” replied Trump. “I don’t think you’d need the sanctions. I think we would get along very, very well.”
In December 8, 2015 — during the same week that former National Security Advisor Lt. Gen Michael T. Flynn (ret.) was paid to appear at Russia Today’s 10th anniversary gala dinner in Moscow beside Vladimir Putin — the NRA took its relationship with Putin’s government to the next level by sending a large delegation to Moscow to meet with the deputy prime minister in charge of Russia’s defense industry, Dmitry Rogozin. The NRA delegation consisted of David Keene, Republican campaign operative and NRA Life Member Paul Erickson, NRA board member/gun manufacturer Pete Brownell, high-dollar NRA donor Joe Gregory, and radical right wing Milwaukee County, Wisconsin sheriff David A. Clarke. Joining Rogozin on the Russian side for the meetings was—predictably—Alexander Torshin.
The trip generated immediate controversy because Rogozin has hardline anti-American views and was individually subject to US sanctions because of his actions in Crimea. Rogozin is the former leader of the ultra-right party Rodina (Motherland) and has advocated for the restoration of the Russian Empire, to include Alaska, which he calls “Russian America.” From 2008 to 2011, he served as the Russian ambassador to NATO, where he focused on preventing Ukraine and Georgia from joining NATO. Rogozin has also bragged about Russia’s “first strike” cyberwarfare capability.
Under the terms of US sanctions, the NRA delegation’s visit with Rogozin would not have been illegal unless the two sides did business together. According to Keene, the two sides only discussed recreational shooting. “Rogozin is chairman of the Russian Shooting Federation and his board hosted a tour of Federation HQ for us while we were there,” he explained. “It was non-political. There were at least 30 in attendance and our interaction consisted of thanking him and his board for the tour.” That doesn’t square with the account of Sheriff Clarke, however, who tweeted that week, “Met earlier with Russian Foreign Minister [Sergey Lavrov] who spoke on Mid East.”
The same month that Torshin watched the NRA endorse Trump at the 2016 annual meeting in Louisville, Taganskaya mob boss Alexander Romanov was sentenced to four years in a Spanish prison for illegal transactions.
On July 22, 2016, WikiLeaks released thousands of hacked emails from top aides at the Democratic National Committee (DNC). The emails raised questions about whether the Democratic National Committee favored Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign over that of Bernie Sanders. In October, the US intelligence community released a report indicating that the Russian government was responsible for the hacks.
Despite his affinity for Vladimir Putin (or perhaps because of it), Donald Trump was elected the 45th President of the United States on November 8, 2016. After spending more than $30 million from its war chest, the NRA now had its man in the White House (in comparison, the NRA only spent $12.5 million to elect Mitt Romney in 2012). Trump had signaled during the campaign that he would support the NRA’s top federal priority—nationally mandated concealed carry reciprocity between the states. He also promised to do away with gun-free zones that protect our nation’s K-12 schools. Finally, Donald Trump, Jr. had become a leading proponent of deregulating silencers, a step the NRA wanted to take to facilitate their sale on the civilian market. The gun lobby was on top of the world.
Up until that point, however, the NRA had taken a tough line against Putin’s government in public statements, almost always in the context of criticizing President Barack Obama’s foreign policy vis a vi Russia. With Trump as president-elect, however, that changed.
On January 2, 2017, David Keene published an op-ed in the Washington Times entitled “Confusing Putin with the Old Soviet Threat.” “We seem prepared to believe any evil of Vladimir Putin’s Russia, which has with its second-rate military establishment and failing economy somehow morphed in the minds of many Americans into a greater threat than the old Soviet Union,” wrote Keene … [Vladimir Putin] is an internally popular Russian nationalist who runs what is, by U.S. standards, a crony capitalist autocracy and has acted internationally in ways that deserve condemnation, but he is neither Hitler nor Stalin.”
Less than a week later, the U.S. intelligence community declassified a report which concluded that “Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the US presidential election,” with the specific goal of harming Hillary Clinton’s “electability and potential presidency.” “We further assess Putin and the Russian Government developed a clear preference for President-elect Trump,” the report stated.
It didn’t blunt Team Trump’s celebration. On Inauguration Day, Maria Butina and Paul Erickson attended the invitation-only Freedom Ball at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center.
Constant headline news about Russian interference in the election and potential collusion with the Trump campaign was taking its toll, however. A meeting between Torshin, Butina and President Trump was canceled at the last minute at the National Prayer Breakfast on February 2. The three had been scheduled to meet at the Washington Hilton before the breakfast started. “Late the night before, we were told that all meet and greets were off,” reported Butina. A Trump administration official had apparently flagged Torshin as someone with “baggage.”
Unlike the Trump administration, the NRA appears to be doubling down on its pro-Putin stance. On February 24, NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre spoke at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) and mocked, “[The media] is horrified. They’re all afret over the Russian-American equation.” He then added, “Even more alarming is they’ve apparently found willing co-conspirators among some in the U.S. intelligence community.” In the past, LaPierre told CPAC, these U.S. intelligence officials would have been “hanged for treason.”
Executing US intelligence officials for talking off the record to the media about a hostile foreign power’s interference in our democratic election? Ouch. Clearly, LaPierre & Co. have no intention of severing ties with their Russian partners following their victory in November.
But does that mean Alexander Torshin will return to the NRA convention this weekend? What about Maria Butina? Hopefully, we’ll find out in a few days.
Whatever the case, it’s time for the media to start covering the NRA’s extensive ties to the Putin government. So far, the gun lobby has been let off the hook entirely by a press eager to churn out Russia-related news dealing with the Trump campaign/administration.
The NRA’s embrace of a dictator is not only incredibly hypocritical—as they claim to be “the oldest civil rights organization” in the US and have spent the last eight years disseminating insurrectionist rhetoric about President Barack’s “tyrannical” government—but also dangerous. The organization’s board of directors is a rogues gallery of some of the most prominent far right politicians in the country, and their interests and influence extends far beyond the issue of gun policy. No one should have any illusions that these men are beyond collaborating with a foreign power in order to enhance their power and wealth.
The NRA is clearly part of Vladimir Putin’s broader outreach to right wing politicians and organizations in the United States and that will continue—regardless of what happens to Trump personally—until it is checked.