A senior Democratic senator said Tuesday the National Rifle Association has dodged some of his questions about its possible receipt of Russian money in advance of the 2016 election and demanded more information about the group’s foreign donations.
In his third letter to the group in recent weeks, Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden pounced on an acknowledgement from NRA General Counsel John Frazer that the group accepts money from “foreign persons only for purposes not connected to elections.” Frazer made the statement in a March 19 letter to Wyden, also asserting that the NRA operates fully within the bounds of the law.
“I once again ask you to fully answer my previous questions,” Wyden wrote Tuesday.
Federal law bars use of foreign donations in all U.S. elections. But the senator wants to know whether the NRA tried to skirt those restrictions by using foreign money to cover nonpolitical expenses, thus freeing other money for political purposes.
The letters between Wyden and the powerful gun rights group stemmed from a McClatchy report in January that the FBI is investigating whether a prominent Russian banker with ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin funneled money to the NRA to help Donald Trump win the presidency. The NRA was Trump’s biggest financial backer, spending at least $30 million on his behalf, nearly triple what it devoted to backing GOP nominee Mitt Romney in 2012.
A footnote in Wyden’s latest letter referenced a Twitter posting in which Alexander Torshin, deputy governor of Russia’s central bank, shared images of himself wearing an NRA “Ring of Freedom” badge signaling that he is a lifetime member of the group and has given it at least $1,000. Torshin hosted an NRA delegation to Moscow in December 2015 and sought unsuccessfully during the 2016 campaign to arrange a meeting between Trump and Putin.
Wyden noted in his letter that federal election and tax laws permit nonprofit lobbying groups such as the NRA to independently spend money on elections without identifying their donors and at the same time to accept money from foreigners. The NRA does allow transfers of funds from accounts that receive foreign money, Frazer confirmed in his letter to Wyden.
Congress not only has a duty to investigate compliance with the law, Wyden wrote, “but also to ascertain whether present law provides sufficient safeguards to protect the American political process from foreign influence.” Wyden is a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, one of the congressional panels probing Russian influence in the 2016 election.
He said Frazer “chose not to fully answer” his question as to whether the group makes election-related or lobbying expenditures from accounts that receive foreign donations.
Frazer wrote that a search of 2015-2016 donations to the NRA’s various accounts found “no significant contributions to any NRA entities sent from any foreign address or drawn on any foreign financial institution.”
“Some contributions were received from U.S. subsidiaries of foreign entities or from U.S. companies with foreign nationals involved in their management,” Frazer wrote. “However, none of those entities or individuals is connected with Russia, and none of their contributions were made in connection with U.S. elections.”
Wyden requested the identities of all foreign donors and specifics on how their contributions were handled. He also sought copies of all NRA communications to its members or the public from accounts that received foreign money or a transfer from an account that has accepted foreign money since Jan. 1, 2015, including the amount of each expenditure, to whom the communication was targeted and the estimated number of viewers, listeners and readers reached.
Wyden said his questions are “all the more pertinent in light of recent reports suggesting the NRA significantly increased online advertisement spending to sway American political discourse” after the Feb. 14 mass shooting at a high school in Parkland, Fla. Cyber security experts have said that Russian trolls seized on the shooting by sending social media messages aimed at whipping up tensions between gun control and gun rights advocates.
McClatchy previously disclosed that the NRA's overall spending in 2016 was at least $70 million, higher than the $55 million it reported to the FEC, according to two NRA insiders. FEC rules don't require disclosure of spending on voter mobilization and online advertising, both of which the NRA did heavily in 2016.
In his letter to Wyden, Frazer said that all donations to the NRA are thoroughly vetted by employees who undergo ongoing compliance training and are “taught that funds may not be accepted from foreign persons in connection with U.S. elections.” The NRA said in late January it has not been contacted by the FBI.
Wyden also said Frazer did not fully respond to his query about whether Joe Gregory, a fundraiser for NRA’s Golden Ring of Freedom program for donors of $1 million or more, sought donations during a visit to Moscow by an NRA delegation in 2015. Frazer said that Gregory took that role on an honorary basis, is not an NRA employee and that no Russians belong to the Golden Ring program.
Peter Stone is a McClatchy special correspondent