The National Rifle Association’s 2016 annual convention was held in May of that year in Kentucky. Donald Trump Jr. attended, as he had in the past. So did Alexander Torshin, also a regular at NRA events. The two ended up speaking briefly at a dinner in Louisville, though details of that encounter are sketchy.
Why does it matter? Because Torshin is a Russian government official, a representative of the country’s central bank and an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin. How Torshin and Trump Jr. came to be in the same room together and why is one of the smaller mysteries orbiting the investigation by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, but not an insignificant one: Mueller is reportedly investigating whether the NRA specifically was used as a conduit for Russians to support Trump’s candidacy.
There’s an interesting detail to that Torshin meeting, though, which hasn’t received much attention. On Thursday, a Russian woman named Maria Butina pleaded guilty in federal court to having engaged in a covert influence operation on behalf of Russia — an operation in which Torshin was involved. Part of Butina’s plea included a statement of offense, in which her criminal actions were stipulated. Among them:
“In May of 2016, Russian Official [Torshin] tasked Butina with writing him a note to explain why he should be permitted to travel to the United States to attend the annual Gun Rights Organization [NRA] meeting. She did as he directed, encouraging his attendance partly because of the opportunity to meet political candidates. Butina knew that Russian Official would share this note with his superiors at the Russian Central Bank and [Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs] to support a request that Russian Official be sent to the annual Gun Rights Organization meeting.”
Torshin, as we know, attended that meeting. That’s not the interesting part, though. The interesting part, in one sense, is that Butina wrote that letter to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Why? Because we know the MFA was already engaged with the campaign of President Trump by May 2016.
Trump campaign adviser George Papadopoulos was first in contact with an individual linked to Russia in March 2016. In short order, that individual, a Britain-based professor named Joseph Mifsud, connected Papadopoulos with a man named Ivan Timofeev, who worked for a think tank called the Russian International Affairs Council. His interactions with Papadopoulos were apparently predicated on setting up a meeting between Trump and Putin. Timofeev was also identified in court documents as being connected to the MFA.
It’s an interesting lens through which to look at the Russia investigation: What did Russia know about the outreach efforts that were underway? While there’s no evidence that any one individual at MFA knew both that Papadopoulos was in regular communication with a liaison and that Torshin might be headed to Kentucky to meet “political candidates” (per the statement of offense), it’s certainly possible.
Torshin had been trying to set up a meeting with Trump Jr. for a while. Paul Erickson, a conservative activist who, according to the government, aided Butina’s efforts, emailed a Trump campaign staffer in May 2016 to try to connect Trump and Putin. (The email subject line was “Kremlin Connection.") That same month, another conservative activist, Rick Clay, emailed the same staffer, Rick Dearborn, encouraging Trump to attend a dinner which Torshin would also attend. (The subject line of that email was “Russian backdoor overture and dinner invite.") It’s not clear if this was the same dinner at which Torshin met Trump Jr.
At the same time, of course, Russian intelligence agencies were probably involved in two other efforts to undermine the election. The Main Intelligence Directorate had allegedly already accessed the Democratic National Committee’s network and Hillary Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta’s email account by May 2016, according to Mueller’s investigators. At the same time, a group called the Internet Research Agency was creating and using fake online personas to create social media posts and buy ads focused on highlighting points of political contention in the United States. The IRA has been linked to Russian intelligence by American intelligence agencies.
The meeting in Kentucky between Trump Jr. and Torshin happened in late May, on the 20th or 21st. Two weeks later, Trump Jr. got another email from a music promoter who worked for a prominent Russian developer offering a possible meeting with a Russian attorney. That invitation was predicated on Russia's possession of information that would incriminate Hillary Clinton, information that came from someone identified as the “Crown prosecutor of Russia."
There is no crown prosecutor in Russia; the Britain-born music promoter was using a term from his home country. Instead, he apparently meant Russia’s prosecutor general, Yury Chaika, who, through a subordinate, did indeed have close ties to that lawyer, Natalia Veselnitskaya. She and senior campaign officials met early in June 2016.
So that's Russian intelligence, Russia's Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Russian Ministry of Justice, all of which had awareness of interactions with the Trump campaign and/or the election. At least one other government office needs to be added to the list, though: Putin's.
In January, Trump's personal attorney Michael Cohen had contacted Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, asking for help in advancing a proposed development deal in Moscow. We learned recently that Cohen actually ended up speaking with an assistant to Peskov at length. The deal that had seemed dead in December 2015 had new life, at least until June 2016.
And another: In early July of that year, another point of contact. Carter Page, a Trump campaign adviser, traveled to Moscow to give a speech. There, he met with Arkady Dvorkovich, then a deputy prime minister in the Russian government. Page claims that the contact was brief, but in an email to the Trump campaign claimed that Dvorkovich had “expressed strong support for Mr. Trump and a desire to work together toward devising better solutions in response to the vast range of current international problems.”
In other words, by early July, Putin knew or could have known that people in or linked to his government were or had:
- Talked to Cohen about a development
- Worked with a campaign adviser to set up a meeting between him and Trump
- Allegedly hacked Podesta's email
- Allegedly created a program meant to pollute U.S. social media
- Allegedly gained access to the Democratic National Committee and began releasing information publicly through WikiLeaks
- Facilitated Torshin's appearance at an NRA conference where he met Trump Jr.
- Met with senior campaign officials in Trump Tower
- Discussed Russian support for Trump with a campaign adviser
We don’t know how much of this Putin was aware of. On Election Day 2016, though, American voters knew almost none of it.