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.

24 PHOTOS
The National Rifle Association (NRA) and gun rights supporters
See Gallery
The National Rifle Association (NRA) and gun rights supporters
A gun rights demonstrator armed with a rifle walks past a sign memorializing the children and teachers killed in the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut in 2012, as protesters aligned with the Women's March hold a rally against the National Rifle Association at NRA headquarters in Fairfax, Virginia, U.S. July 14, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
NRA Executive Vice President and CEO Wayne LaPierre speaks at the National Rifle Association (NRA) Leadership Forum at the Georgia World Congress Center in Atlanta, Georgia, U.S., April 28, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
U.S. President Donald Trump delivers remarks at the National Rifle Association (NRA) Leadership Forum at the Georgia World Congress Center in Atlanta, Georgia, U.S. April 28, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Supporters listen to U.S. President Donald Trump deliver remarks at the National Rifle Association (NRA) Leadership Forum at the Georgia World Congress Center in Atlanta, Georgia, U.S., April 28, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
Supporters wait for U.S. President Donald Trump to deliver remarks at the National Rifle Association (NRA) Leadership Forum at the Georgia World Congress Center in Atlanta, Georgia, U.S., April 28, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Supporters wait for U.S. President Donald Trump to deliver remarks at the National Rifle Association (NRA) Leadership Forum at the Georgia World Congress Center in Atlanta, Georgia, U.S., April 28, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
Onlookers, including a man wearing a National Rifle Association (NRA) t-shirt, watch as a 95-by-50-foot American flag is unfurled on the side of an apartment complex, a replica of the "The Great Flag" that was spun, woven, dyed, constructed and displayed on the same building by Amoskeag Manufacturing Company in 1914, in Manchester, New Hampshire, U.S., June 14, 2017. REUTERS/Brian Snyder
NRA Executive Director Chris Cox (L) and Executive Vice President and CEO Wayne LaPierre (R) welcome U.S. President Donald Trump (C) onstage to deliver remarks at the National Rifle Association (NRA) Leadership Forum at the Georgia World Congress Center in Atlanta, Georgia, U.S., April 28, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
File Photo: NRA gun enthusiasts view Sig Sauer rifles at the National Rifle Association's annual meetings & exhibits show in Louisville, Kentucky, U.S. on May 21, 2016. REUTERS/John Sommers II
Gun enthusiasts look over Smith & Wesson guns at the National Rifle Association's (NRA) annual meetings and exhibits show in Louisville, Kentucky, May 21, 2016. REUTERS/John Sommers II/File Photo
James Bell from Nashville, TN, look over rifle scopes from Burris Riflescope at the National Rifle Association's (NRA) annual meetings and exhibits show in Louisville, Kentucky, U.S. May 21, 2016. REUTERS/John Sommers II/File Photo
Gun enthusiasts poses for a picture with an FN MK 48 machine gun and a MK 19 grenade launcher at the National Rifle Association's (NRA) annual meetings & exhibits show in Louisville, Kentucky, May 21, 2016. REUTERS/John Sommers II
Gun enthusiasts look over guns at FN America firearms at the National Rifle Association's (NRA) annual meetings and exhibits show in Louisville, Kentucky, May 21, 2016. REUTERS/John Sommers II
Gun instructor Robert Allen (L) works with Eathan Hawkins (8) at the air gun range at the National Rifle Association's (NRA) annual meetings and exhibits show in Louisville, Kentucky, May 21, 2016. REUTERS/John Sommers II
Indiana Governor Mike Pence addresses members of the National Rifle Association during their NRA-ILA Leadership Forum at their annual meeting in Louisville, Kentucky, May 20, 2016. REUTERS/John Sommers II
Attendees recite the pledge of allegiance before the National Rifle Association's NRA-ILA Leadership Forum during their annual meeting in Louisville, Kentucky, May 20, 2016. REUTERS/Aaron P. Bernstein
Attendees visit the trade booths during the National Rifle Association's (NRA) annual meeting in Louisville, Kentucky, May 21, 2016. REUTERS/Aaron P. Bernstein
Attendees visit the trade booths during the National Rifle Association's (NRA) annual meeting in Louisville, Kentucky, May 21, 2016. REUTERS/Aaron P. Bernstein TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Activists hold a protest and vigil against gun violence on the third anniversary of the Sandy Hook mass shooting, outside the National Rifle Association (NRA) headquarters in Fairfax, Virginia December 14, 2015. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
Brendan Walsh looks at a rifle scope in the trade booths showroom during the National Rifle Association's annual meeting in Nashville, Tennessee April 12, 2015. REUTERS/Harrison McClary
Fans wait in line to meet musician and supporter of the NRA, Ted Nugent, who was signing autographs during the National Rifle Association's annual meeting in Nashville, Tennessee April 12, 2015. REUTERS/Harrison McClary
Musician and supporter of the NRA, Ted Nugent, signs autographs during the National Rifle Association's annual meeting in Nashville, Tennessee April 12, 2015. REUTERS/Harrison McClary
Dave Verner looks at pistols and scopes in the trade booth area during the National Rifle Association's annual meeting in Nashville, Tennessee April 11, 2015. REUTERS/Harrison McClary
Brett Throckmorten of Barnes Bullets shows Logan Wingo how to sight down an electronic rifle in the trade booth area during the National Rifle Association's annual meeting in Nashville, Tennessee, April 11, 2015. REUTERS/Harrison McClary
HIDE CAPTION
SHOW CAPTION
of
SEE ALL
BACK TO SLIDE

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.

7 PHOTOS
Russian banker Alexander Torshin
See Gallery
Russian banker Alexander Torshin
NIZNHY NOVGOROD, RUSSIA - JUNE 9: Alexander Torshin, Russian Deputy chairman of the Federation Council, the upper house of the Russian parliament , attends a State Council meeting June 9, 2011 in Nizhny Novgorog, 405 km. East of Moscow, Russia. (Photo by Konstantin Zavrazhin/Getty Images)
MOSCOW, RUSSIA - JUNE 12: Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin (R) , State Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov (L) and Federation Council Deputy Chief Alexander Torshin (C) attend a presentation ceremony of state awards in the Kremlin on June 12, 2011 in Moscow, Russia. Russia Day is a National Holiday that has been held in Russia since 1992, and is a day formed in recognition of the new direction Russia took during the disolution of the Soviet Union and the declaration of the Russian Federation. (Photo by Konstantin Zavrazhin/Getty Images)
Russian Council of the Federation Deputy Chief Alexander Torshin is seen during a meeting April, 3, 2012 in Maloyaroslavets, Kaluga region, Russia. Ivanov is having a one-day visit to the region. (Photo by Sasha Mordovets/Getty Images)
Russian Federation Council First Deputy Chairman Alexander Torshin, State Secretary Deputy Governor of the Bank of Russia, attends a business breakfast titled 'The Russian Banking System: How to Make it More Comfortable for the Islamic Business' as part of KazanSummit 2016, the 8th International Economic Summit of Russia and the countries of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), in Kazan, Russia, May 20, 2016. Yegor Aleyev/TASS (Photo by Yegor Aleyev\TASS via Getty Images)
MOSCOW, RUSSIA - MARCH 29, 2017: Presidium member of the Association of Lawyers of Russia, State Secretary - Deputy Governor of the Bank of Russia Alexander Torshin attends a plenary meeting of the Russian Federation Council. Stanislav Krasilnikov/TASS (Photo by Stanislav Krasilnikov\TASS via Getty Images)
MOSCOW, RUSSIA - DECEMBER 26, 2017: Artur Chilingarov (L), Russia's Special Presidential Representative for International Cooperation in the Arctic and Antarctic and president of Russia's Association of Polar Explorers, and Russian Central Bank Deputy Governor Alexander Torshin seen ahead of a meeting of an initiative group to nominate Vladimir Putin for presidency in the 2018 election. Stanislav Krasilnikov/TASS (Photo by Stanislav Krasilnikov\TASS via Getty Images)
MOSCOW, RUSSIA - SEPTEMBER 14, 2016: Presidium member of the Association of Lawyers of Russia, State Secretary - Deputy Governor of the Bank of Russia Alexander Torshin addresses a round table meeting titled 'Teaching law basics in secondary school as a social studies discipline'. Alexander Shalgin/Russian State Duma Press Office/TASS (Photo by Alexander Shalgin\TASS via Getty Images)
HIDE CAPTION
SHOW CAPTION
of
SEE ALL
BACK TO SLIDE

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.

Read Full Story