Several prominent Russians had contact with NRA during 2016 campaign

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 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.During his visit, Grinda also acknowledged in an appearance at the Hudson Institute that a few months ago his office provided the FBI with transcripts of wiretaps in which a since-convicted Russian money-launderer spoke with Torshin and called him "El Padrino," Spanish for godfather, Yahoo News reported.

Spanish authorities have alleged that Torshin helped launder money years ago into Spanish hotels and banks for Russian mobsters, a development first reported in 2016 by Bloomberg News.

Torshin was among 38 Russian government officials, oligarchs and companies sanctioned by the United States in April in retaliation for the Kremlin’s U.S. election meddling and other aggressions around the world, including in Ukraine and Syria. It’s unclear whether Torshin’s NRA activities or his alleged money-laundering in Spain influenced the decision to bar Americans from doing business with him.

Now deputy governor of Russia’s central bank, Torshin has denied mob ties, as well as any role in money-laundering in Spain or in secretly routing money to the NRA.

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.

Spokespeople for the FBI and Mueller’s office declined to comment on the letter.

The senior Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee echoed concerns about whether Russian money might have found its way through the NRA to congressional races. California Rep. Adam Schiff said it’s also important to trace whether the Russians used the prominent gun rights group to conceal financial backing for Trump to determine "whether that would constitute leverage against our now-president" - a favor that could leave him beholden to the Kremlin.

In a weeks-long exchange of letters with Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon, NRA General Counsel John Frazer disclosed that the group accepts foreign donations, but that none has been used in elections and that Russian contributions and member dues totaled $2,500 in 2016.In April, Frazer cut off the exchange without divulging any of the group’s so-called "dark money" donors, who are allowed to contribute anonymously and can further shield their identities behind shell companies. It is unclear whether the group has traced the sources of all of those funds.

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.

NRA officials first forged a relationship with Torshin, a close Putin ally, and his protege, Maria Butina, in 2011. Soon, Torshin helped Butina start a Russian gun rights group called Right to Bear Arms.

In 2016, upon Trump’s election as president, Torshin tweeted that he and Butina were the only Russian lifetime members of the NRA.For five years, Torshin flew to the United States to attend the group’s annual conventions, culminating in the 2016 affair in Louisville. Torshin briefly met Donald Trump Jr. at a dinner during the event, but failed in efforts to arrange a private meeting with Trump.

Months earlier, in December 2015, Torshin and Butina’s gun rights group hosted an NRA delegation led by NRA board member and former President David Keene for a week of lavish wining and dining in Moscow.During their visit, the NRA group met with Rogozin, who served as the deputy prime minister overseeing Russia’s military industrial complex for seven years and previously was Russia’s ambassador to NATO. Late last month, Putin put him in charge of the Russian space program.

Rogozin is a far-right nationalist who has "extensive ties to the Russian arms industry" that he managed and "is deeply hostile to the West," said Mike Carpenter, who was a Russia specialist while a senior Pentagon official in the Obama administration.

Another Russia expert, Atlantic Council fellow Anders Aslund, was flabbergasted that the NRA delegation met with Rogozin.

"I can’t understand the NRA meeting with Rogozin since he was sanctioned in 2014," he said. " It’s so embarrassing."

©2018 McClatchy Washington Bureau Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.