Maria Butina, the Russian woman charged in federal court last week with acting as an unregistered agent of her government, received financial support from Konstantin Nikolaev, a Russian billionaire with investments in U.S. energy and technology companies, according to a person familiar with testimony she gave Senate investigators.Butina told the Senate Intelligence Committee in April that Nikolaev provided funding for a gun rights group she represented, according to the person. A spokesman for Nikolaev confirmed that he was in contact with her as she was launching the gun rights group in Russia between 2012 and 2014. He declined to confirm whether Nikolaev gave her financial support. …According to prosecutors, for two years, she traveled back and forth to the United States, often accompanying Russian central banker Alexander Torshin to NRA events and other political meetings. Prosecutors have said that her activities were directed by a high-level Russian government official who matches the description of Torshin.
Democrats likely will demand Republicans give back NRA money and reject its support, impossibilities for a party that long ago wrapped its arms around the NRA. The NRA — the Russia-touched NRA, that is — now becomes a potential liability for Republicans.
What, then, to make of Republicans who were chummy with Russia-connected figures? It’s not a theoretical question. It’s about to become an issue in Tennessee’s U.S. Senate race. Back in March, the Tennessean reported:
Amid ongoing probes into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election, one Nashville attorney is gaining notice for his relationship to a Russian banker with Kremlin ties.G. Kline Preston, IV, a graduate of the Nashville School of Law, has authored books about Russian regulations, and has represented clients in Russia, Ukraine, Canada, Cuba and England.Among Preston’s Russian clients and longtime friends is Alexander Torshin, a prominent Russian politician who has close ties to President Vladimir Putin. Torshin is under scrutiny for illegally channeling Russian funds to the National Rifle Association in an effort to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election.Preston first introduced Torshin to then-president of the NRA David Keene in 2011 and the pair attended the NRA’s annual convention in Nashville in 2015.
And Preston is a friend and confidant of Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn), who is running for the Senate seat being vacated by Bob Corker (R). Blackburn reportedly also met with Torshin in 2012. (Her campaign spokeswoman did not provide any comment specifically on the allegations but instead referred me back to the Tennessean account in which a campaign spokesman made a generic comment to the effect that Blackburn “believes Russia is not our friend — and thinks we need to treat Russia like any bully: we need to be strong enough to prevent them from pushing the United States and our allies around, and we need to draw firm lines and show them that America is not to be trifled with.”) With the Butina indictment and ongoing focus on Russia’s ties to the NRA, Blackburn will face questions.
A spokesman for the Tennessee Democratic Party put out a statement demanding she explain her Russian contacts. (“In 2012, she met with accused spy master Alexander Torshin when he visited Williamson County — her home county — as an election observer, squired by her former campaign president, attorney, and friend G. Kline Preston IV. Blackburn owes Tennessee voters an explanation of these meetings.”) Blackburn spent last week furiously trying to distance herself from Trump’s Helsinki comments. But if the issue comes down to who will hold Trump accountable on Russia and take oversight of Russia’s far-flung influence racket seriously, Blackburn will find herself playing defense.
Mass shootings over the past year have reminded voters of the NRA’s intransigence. NRA chief Wayne LaPierre’s wackadoodle rant at the Conservative Political Action Conference reminded them the NRA has become a refuge for conspiracy theories and far-right extremism. Now the Russia story and Butina indictment raise the question of why the GOP is in bed with a group the Russians allegedly used to meddle with our elections — and whether money Republicans took is tainted by the NRA’s Russia connection. Stay tuned.