The NRA spent far more on last year’s election to support Donald Trump than in any other election prior to that and now, according to an explosive new McClatchy report, Robert Mueller is investigating whether some of that money was funneled to the NRA by a Russian official with close ties to Vladimir Putin.
The report details several big red flags about Alexander Torshin, a former member of the Russian legislature, a close ally of Putin’s, a major figure in Russian organized crime and also the deputy governor of Russia’s central bank. This is not a small-time player, this is a major heavyweight in the Russian government. He also has a long history of money laundering and founded a gun rights group in Moscow that has forged a close relationship with the NRA. Among the red flags that attracted Mueller’s attention:
1. The NRA spent $30 million on ads to support Trump during the election, triple the amount they spent on behalf of Mitt Romney in 2012 — and that doesn’t include spending that isn’t trackable under our campaign finance laws, like internet advertising and get out the vote efforts. Two sources told McClatchy the real amount was more like $70 million (in addition to another $55 million spent on House and Senate races). And most of that money was spent by the arm of the NRA that does not have to disclose its donors, which raises the possibility that some of that money came from Torshin.
2. Torshin is a lifetime member of the NRA, which is rather odd since the NRA operates only in the United States and he is not American. And he hosted an NRA delegation in Moscow in late 2015 that included many other Russian government officials and business figures, exactly the kind of people who could funnel money to the NRA’s “independent” wing that does not have to disclose where it gets its funding.
3. Torshin attended the NRA’s annual convention during last year’s campaign, an event at which Trump spoke, and he met with Donald Trump, Jr. during the convention. At that time, he tried to arrange a meeting between Trump and Putin and to meet privately with Trump himself. Other influential NRA members tried to do the same thing, including Paul Erickson, who emailed campaign official Rick Dearborn asking to set up such meetings. Dearborn has already been interviewed by Mueller’s investigators, but we don’t know what he told them. It seems plausible that he’s the one who sent them after this particular bit of possible criminality.4. Erickson has an LLC registered along with Maria Butina, who is one of Torshin’s underlings. Why they would be in business together is a mystery. Erickson says it was set up in case Butina needed help paying for college (she attends American University in Washington, DC), but who uses an LLC for that kind of thing? Why couldn’t Torshin just give her the money she needs? That’s all very odd.
All of this produces a lot of smoke, but since we don’t know what Mueller has we have no idea if there’s fire there. The report does note:
The extent to which the FBI has evidence of money flowing from Torshin to the NRA, or of the NRA’s participation in the transfer of funds, could not be learned.
But while the NRA can hide its donors from the FEC, it can’t hide them from Mueller if he can secure a subpoena. And I’m betting there is more than enough here for a judge to agree that there is probable cause to approve one and force them to open up their books. If money did flow from Torshin to the NRA, I’m sure it was done through a series of shell companies and other hard-to-track techniques, but Mueller has several prosecutors on his team that are very experienced in international money laundering.
It must be noted that if this turns out to be true, it’s a whole new level for the Mueller investigation. Forget collusion, a vague term that doesn’t really correspond to any actual crimes. If they could prove that Russian money was given to the NRA to be used to support Trump, that would be highly illegal and would implicate everyone involved. The NRA could literally end up being shut down by it and would certainly face serious penalties. If they can show that Trump or those close to him were aware of it, that would be a massive step up in the seriousness of the investigation.
The one thing I have no doubt of is this: If there is evidence of money changing hands for that purpose, Mueller and his team will find it. And if that happens, Trump is toast. But at this point, that remains a big ‘if’.