A new report from Democrats on the Senate Finance Committee reveals that the National Rifle Association acted as a “foreign asset” for Russia in the period leading up to the 2016 election. The report was released Friday by Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore in a lengthy Twitter thread, and reveals that Russians were using their ties to the gun rights group in an attempt to bolster their status with lawmakers or the winner of the 2016 election, and the NRA knew about it.
An 18-month probe conducted by the Democratic staff of the Senate Finance Committee found that the NRA guaranteed more political access for Russian nationals than previously known. The Russian nationals were Maria Butina and Alexander Torshin, both of whom had declared their ties to the Kremlin. The report also describes how closely the NRA was involved in the organizing of a 2015 visit by some of its leaders to Moscow, with Wyden pointing out that the NRA lied about the Moscow trip not being an official trip. The NRA vice-president at the time, Pete Brownell, was enticed to visit Russia with the promise of personal business opportunities, and the NRA covered a portion of the trip’s costs, according to the report.
The 77-page report indicates that top NRA officials were aware of Butina’s and Torshin’s ties to the Kremlin. Butina—now a convicted Russian agent in federal prison—wrote in an email that the purpose of the 2015 Moscow trip was that top figures in the Kremlin wanted Torshin to prove his American connections by demonstrating that he could bring NRA officials to Russia. Butina also suggested to the participants of the trip that she might be able to set up a meeting between them and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Despite Butina’s and Alexander’s ties to the Kremlin, NRA officials gave the Russians free rein over the guest list for its 2016 annual meeting, allowing them to gain access to, and forge connections with, Republican Party officials.
The response from the NRA and Republicans—many of which are in the NRA’s pocket—is that of denial. The NRA called the report “politically motivated” and continued to claim that 2015 Moscow trip was not an official trip, though the Senate investigation found evidence that the NRA tried to hide various payments relating to the trip. The Republican majority of the Senate Finance Committee argued the classic “they didn’t do it but if they did, it wasn’t a big deal.” They argue that if the NRA had committed any infractions, they would be small and wouldn’t put the NRA’s tax-exempt status at risk.
Despite the NRA’s confident denials, the report provides evidence that refutes the NRA. A letter obtained by the committee reveals that then-President of the NRA, Allan Cors, wrote to Torshin on NRA letterhead designating two NRA figures to lead the trip. Cors wrote, “Dave Keene and [top NRA donor] Joe Gregory will represent the NRA and our five million members better than anyone else.” During the investigation, Brownell’s lawyer told the committee that Brownell believed the trip was indeed an official NRA event. The committee also found evidence that NRA staff prepared itineraries for the 2015 Moscow trip, gathered briefing materials, and provided the delegation with NRA gifts to give to Russian officials.
The conclusions from this investigation could have legal ramifications for the NRA. Tax-exempt organizations, like the NRA (for some reason), cannot use their funds for the personal benefit of its officials or for actions that fall significantly outside their stated missions. This Senate investigation has uncovered that the NRA has done both, which raises questions about whether the NRA could face civil penalties or even lose its tax-exempt status. Wyden now seeks for the IRS to launch its own inquiry into the NRA. “The IRS needs to examine these findings,” Wyden said, “and investigate other publicly reported incidents of potential lawbreaking.”