WASHINGTON (TNS) — Several prominent Russians, some in President Vladimir Putin’s inner circle or high in the Russian Orthodox Church, now have been identified as having contact with National Rifle Association officials during the 2016 U.S. election campaign, according to photographs and an NRA source.
The contacts have emerged amid a deepening Justice Department investigation into whether Russian banker and lifetime NRA member Alexander Torshin illegally channeled money through the gun rights group to add financial firepower to Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential bid.
Other influential Russians who met with NRA representatives during the campaign include Dmitry Rogozin, who until last month served as a deputy prime minister overseeing Russia’s defense industry, and Sergei Rudov, head of one of Russia’s largest philanthropies, the St. Basil the Great Charitable Foundation. The foundation was launched by an ultra-nationalist ally of Russian President Putin.
The Russians talked and dined with NRA representatives, mainly in Moscow, as U.S. presidential candidates vied for the White House. Now U.S. investigators want to know if relationships between the Russian leaders and the nation’s largest gun rights group went beyond vodka toasts and gun factory tours, evolving into another facet of the Kremlin’s broad election-interference operation.
Even as the contacts took place, Kremlin cyber operatives were secretly hacking top Democrats’ emails and barraging Americans’ social media accounts with fake news stories aimed at damaging the image of Democratic presidential frontrunner Hillary Clinton and boosting the prospects of Republican Donald Trump.
It is a crime, potentially punishable with prison time, to donate or use foreign money in U.S. election campaigns.
McClatchy in January disclosed that Justice Department Special Counsel Robert Mueller was investigating whether Torshin or others engineered the flow of Russian monies to the NRA; the Senate Intelligence Committee is also looking into the matter, sources familiar with the probe have said. The sources spoke on condition of anonymity because the inquiries, which are part of sweeping, parallel investigations into Russia’s interference with the 2016 U.S. elections, have not been publicly announced.
NRA spokesman Andrew Arulanandam said, however, that the FBI has not contacted the group.
A photograph taken during a 2015 trip to Russia by leaders of the powerful group showed them meeting with Torshin, Rogozin and Rudov, and a source knowledgeable about the visit confirmed the gathering. The source spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid damaging relationships.
The NRA, Trump’s biggest financial backer, spent more than $30 million to boost his upstart candidacy; that’s more than double what it laid out for 2012 GOP nominee Mitt Romney, and the NRA money started flowing much earlier in the cycle for Trump.
Torshin has drawn focus in part because he was implicated in a years-long investigation by Spanish authorities into money-laundering by the Russian mob. Spanish prosecutor Jose Grinda, who has led that investigation, was in Washington late last month and met with FBI officials for several hours, a well-placed source said.Last month on Capitol Hill, Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee who examined Russian interactions with the NRA reached a preliminary conclusion that “the Kremlin may also have used the NRA to secretly fund Mr. Trump’s campaign.”
Citing that finding, Democratic Reps. Ted Lieu of California and Kathleen Rice of New York asked FBI Director Christopher Wray in a May 24 letter to expand the inquiry to also explore whether Kremlin money flowed illegally to the NRA for use in influencing House and Senate races.
“Illegal campaign contributions by a foreign nation, especially one whose interests stand in stark contrast to those of the United States, threaten the very underpinnings of our democracy and cannot remain unchallenged,” Lieu and Rice wrote.The NRA reported spending $24.4 million to back Republican candidates for Congress in 2016.
Of the $30 million the NRA reported spending to support Trump, more than $21 million was spent by its lobbying arm, whose donors are not publicly reported.
Two NRA insiders say that overall, the group spent at least $70 million, including resources devoted to field operations and online advertising, which are not required to be publicly reported.