Activists are demanding the National Rifle Association (NRA) reveal if it received donations from Russia, after it was reported the FBI is investigating whether a Kremlin-linked Moscow businessman channelled money to the group’s campaign to help Donald Trump win the election.
With the influence of the NRA under mounting scrutiny following a school shooting in Florida and the campaign led by students to change the country’s gun laws, campaigners say it is vital that investigators uncover if the powerful lobbying group group used any Russian money to help elect Republican members of Congress and Mr Trump during the 2016 race. It is against the law to use foreign money in federal election campaigns.
It was recently reported the FBI was focusing its attention on Alexander Torshin, a former member of the upper house of Russia’s parliament and currently deputy governor of Russia’s central bank, who is said to have a close relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The 64-year-old gun enthusiast is also said to be a Life Member of the NRA.
Since McClatchy News first reported Mr Torshin and the donation were being investigated, campaigners have been seeking to pressure the NRA to come clean about its funding.
Kristin Brown, co-president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, told The Independent that the NRA, which was founded in 1871 as a recreational group designed to “promote and encourage rifle shooting on a scientific basis”, today got most of its funding from gun manufacturers.
“NRA members should be outraged if even a portion of this alarming story is true. The NRA tells its members that it defends America’s freedoms,” she said of the McClatchy News report.
“If the NRA is actually a front for Russian interests and interfered with our elections, actively or passively, then they have undermined the very democratic freedoms they purport to represent. We can only wonder how many true patriots will decide that this is the last straw and give up their NRA memberships.”
Giffords, the gun safety group set up by former congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, who narrowly survived an assassination attempt in 2011, said if it was true the NRA had accepted a donation, it would be “an insult to members and a threat to our democracy”.
“The NRA was once an organisation dedicated to gun safety and sportsmanship, but today it’s been overtaken by lobbyists and has grown increasingly out of touch with the gun owners it claims to represent,” said Giffords’ Executive Director Peter Ambler.
The NRA spent a record $55m during the 2016 election cycle, directing money towards campaigns and adverts supporting members of congress it judged to be most supportive of its aims and polities. Senator Marco Rubio, who this week was publicly challenged by a Florida shooting survivor to vow to refuse to take NRA money, has received at least $3.3m from the NRA during his career, the sixth most of the current members of Congress. During the 2016 election, the NRA scored Mr Rubio “A+”, its highest ranking.
The largest amount of money from the NRA in 2016, a total of $30m, went to Mr Trump. It helped pay for advertisements supporting his campaign and attacking that of his Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton. The money was spent by a wing of the NRA that is not legally obligated to reveal who its donors are.
Mr Torshin has long had been known for his links to Republicans and gun advocates. Reports suggest Mr Torshin was in 2011 introduced to David Keene, then the NRA president, by Kline Preston IV, a Nashville-based lawyer who has for many years done work in Russia.
Mr Kline confirmed he had introduced the men and said Mr Torshin was a gun enthusiast. Indeed, several years ago he established a gun rights movement in Russia called the Right to Bear Arms. The group is run by Russian activist Maria Butina, who completed her post-graduate studies in the US and has been active in forging links between gun rights advocates in both countries.
I don’t know what Senator Torshin does with his money,” Mr Preston said this week. “The claims that these Russians funded money to the Trump campaign through the NRA are baseless.”
He added: “There is nothing there. It’s a snipe hunt – hunting for something that does not exist.”
ThinkProgress said that in May 2013, Mr Torshin attended the NRA national convention in Houston. Two years later, Mr Torshin’s gun group hosted an NRA delegation in Moscow.
Among those who reportedly attended were Mr Keene, NRA Vice President Pete Brownwell, NRA donor Arnold Goldschlager and David A Clarke, who was then the Milwaukee County Sheriff and later came close to being asked to join Mr Trump’s administration. He is currently a contributor at Fox News.
Mr Torshin attended the NRA’s 2016 convention in Louisville, Kentucky, where he is said to have met with Mr Trump and shared a table with the Donald Trump Jr at one of the dinners.
Bloomberg News said the Spanish authorities for three years investigated Mr Torshin as part of a probe into how Russian criminals were allegedly money laundering assets in Spain. The investigation ended in 2013 and no charges were ever brought. Mr Torshin told the news site he was innocent of any wrongdoing. “I’m a public individual and I’m not hiding anywhere,” Mr Torshin said.
Senators on Capitol Hill investigating possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Moscow’s alleged interference in the 2016 election have also been looking at Mr Torshin.
In November 2017, Senator Diane Feinstein, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, wrote to several former advisers to Mr Trump, asking for copies of any communications they had with Mr Torshin, the NRA or Ms Butina.