Dispatch January 18, 2018

NRA=Nefarious Russian Activities?

In light of today’s McClatchy report that that the FBI is investigating whether Russia funneled money to the NRA to help Trump, a bit more on the connections and considerations at play:

The Russian government may have already fostered a deep relationship with the NRA.

  • Donald Trump Jr. met over dinner with Russian central banker Alexander Torshin, a former Russian Senator and a close Putin ally, at the NRA convention in 2016. Around the same time, Torshin reportedly attempted to arrange a meeting between Putin and Trump. Jared Kushner was later criticized for failing to disclose this attempt.
  • Trump campaign surrogate David Clarke, former Milwaukee sheriff, visited Russia as part of an N.R.A. delegation in 2015. The delegation, which included conservative activist Paul Erickson, met with a U.S. sanctioned Russian prime minister of defense and Torshin.
  • Maria Butina, who previously worked for Torshin, founded the group “The Right to Bear Arms” to advocate for Russian gun owners in 2011. Julia Ioffe has credited Butina, through her formation of this group, with “almost single-handedly inventing Russia’s gun-rights movement.” The group advocates higher gun ownership rates in the name of self-defense. Butina reportedly currently resides in D.C., where she attends American University as a graduate student.
  • More from ThinkProgress last year here.

Oddly, Russia has strict gun laws, and there is no movement or constituency that advocates for changing that. Why would the Russian government invest in such a polarizing relationship that doesn’t advance a policy agenda or the interests of a domestic political constituency?

  • Russian citizens are not permitted to own automatic or semi-automatic weapons and only 9% of Russians own a firearm. Unlike the U.S., obtaining a legal gun in Russia is a difficult process, involving extensive background checks and investigations.
  • Until recently, Russian citizens were only permitted to own guns for hunting. A 2014 change now allows Russians to carry guns for self-defense as well, but there was little public pressure or even support for this measure. A 2011 Levada poll showed little appetite for amending the tight restrictions, finding that “80 percent of Russians opposed easing existing gun regulations.”
  • Russia’s political leadership has criticized the very policies the NRA advocates for to their domestic audiences.
    • In December 2012, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev “called guns a danger to society and ruled out any ease in access,” saying “the rules that exist in the United States are absolutely unacceptable for Russia or even for the United States itself. Although they are proud of some well-known constitutional amendments — this happens — it is horrible and impossible to justify.”

Russian backing of the NRA aligns with Kremlin strategy to support (officially and unofficially) destabilizing groups on both the far-right and far-left.

A clear pattern of suspicious financial activity is central to the Russia investigation. One missing piece: did Russia’s support for the Trump campaign extend to the one thing every campaign needs – money?

Here’s what we know about Russian money going to Trump so far:

  • As early as April 2016, the CIA reportedly received a tape recording from an intel agency in “one of the Baltic States” about “money from the Kremlin going into the US presidential campaign.”
  • Kremlin-linked troll farms purchased at least $150,000 in political ads on Facebook and other social networks during the campaign.
  • According to BuzzFeed, investigators are looking into suspicious transactions involving the Russian embassy during and shortly after the election.
  • The Putin-linked billionaire Len Blavatnik, a dual U.S.-U.K. citizen, went from making minor, bipartisan donations to being one of the largest individual donors to GOP political action committees during the 2016 cycle.
  • Andrew Intrater, who is the CEO of the American subsidiary of a firm owned by Vik Vekselberg, one of the richest men in Russia and a close Putin associate, donated almost $300,000 to Trump’s inauguration fund. Intrater is also Vekselberg’s cousin.
  • Simon Kukes, an oil magnate with ties to the Kremlin, went from having no significant donor history to contributing $283,000, much of it to the Trump Victory Fund.
  • FBI investigators are reportedly scrutinizing money transfers from the Russian Foreign Ministry bearing notes that they were to be used “to finance election campaign of 2016.”
  • The Steele Dossier highlights extensive Russian money laundering activity in the U.S. as related to the Kremlin’s influence campaign.

And remember: House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy said in June 2016 that “there’s two people I think Putin pays: [Congressman Dana] Rohrabacher and Trump.”