One of the extraordinary findings in the Senate Judiciary Committee’s preliminary report released on Wednesday concerns the National Rifle Association. The report states:
The Committee has obtained a number of documents that suggest the Kremlin used the National Rifle Association as a means of accessing and assisting Mr. Trump and his campaign. Two individuals involved in this effort appear to be Russian nationals Alexander Torshin and Maria Butina. Mr. Torshin is a Putin ally and the Deputy Governor of the Central Bank of Russia, and Ms. Butina served as his assistant. She also founded Right to Bear Arms, the Russian equivalent of the NRA, and started a business with former Trump supporter and adviser Paul Erickson. Both Mr. Torshin and Ms. Butina have longstanding ties to ex-NRA president, David Keene, and in 2013, hosted him in Russia for a pro-gun conference.
During the campaign, Mr. Torshin, Ms. Butina, and their intermediaries repeatedly offered the campaign back channels to Russia and relayed requests from President Putin to meet with Mr. Trump. The Kremlin may also have used the NRA to secretly fund Mr. Trump’s campaign. The extent of Russia’s use of the NRA as an avenue for connecting with and potentially supporting the Trump campaign needs examination. Requests for documents and staff interviews have been sent to Ms. Butina, Mr. Erickson, and Mr. Keene, but they have refused to cooperate.
Russia’s alleged use of the NRA as a kind of front group raises serious questions, according to Russia experts. “We’ve focused a lot on the Russian outreach on social media, but we’ve missed the entirety of Russian influence efforts,” says former FBI special agent Clinton Watts. “Active Measures seek to engage on three levels, State-to-state, State-to-people (social media) and state-to-party. The NRA outreach represents their ground game where they seek to engage sympathetic parties and organizations in the target audience by aligning along common interests.” He reminds us, “During [the] Cold War, this was via communist parties and socialist groups, now with Russian Active Measures it’s through groups like the NRA or religious connections.”
There are numerous questions yet to be answered — the extent of the NRA’s knowledge of Russian meddling, whether the NRA participated in a conspiracy to break campaign finance laws barring foreigners from making campaign donations and where the Russian money funneled through the NRA wound up. Nevertheless, Max Bergmann of the Moscow Project observes: “It looks increasingly clear the Russians were looking to infiltrate the American right. What’s shocking was how little resistance the Russians seemed to face.”
Congressional hearings into the possible use of of right-wing front groups by the Kremlin would certainly be appropriate. Meanwhile, the NRA revelation raises a serious problem for politicians who have received money and/or support from the NRA. No one is suggesting that any candidates who benefited from the NRA’s largesse knew of Russia’s alleged infiltration; however, now that significant questions have been raised about the origin of campaign money, any candidate who received NRA support, I would argue, has at least a moral obligation to give the money back. Those who have gotten the coveted “A” rating from the NRA should think twice about touting the stamp of approval from a group that wittingly or unwittingly allegedly helped in essence launder Russian money. Opponents of the NRA-backed candidates would be foolish not to demand that they give their NRA money back — perhaps in rubles.
Finally, one has to ask the extent to which Russian money has gone into supporting other right-wing groups and why Russia preferred one American political party over another. Put differently, why did Russia become convinced that right-wing defenders of the Second Amendment could be helpful to its cause?