The National Rifle Association, attempting to rebuff a senior Democratic senator’s questions about whether it received illicit funding from a Kremlin figure to help Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, said this week that it received a total of $2,513 in donations and membership dues from 23 people with Russian ties since 2015 and ensured none of the money went for political purposes.
However, the group’s top lawyer wrote Sen. Ron Wyden that it is “currently reviewing (its) responsibilities” with respect to a top Russian banking official, Alexander Torshin, a lifetime NRA memberwho sources have described as a focus of an FBI investigation into possible channeling of Russian money to the NRA. Torshin was among a group of Russian oligarchs and government officials hit with U.S. sanctions last week.
NRA General Counsel John Frazer, in the latest of three responses in recent weeks to Wyden’s demands for information from the group, also advised Wyden that he wouldn’t respond to further questions from the Oregon Democrat, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee. An aide said Wyden has concluded that the NRA has dodged his questions about how it traces the true source of its donations, including whether any money came from shell companies, “a known means for Russians to funnel money into the United States.”
Wyden will refer his exchange of letters with the group to the Federal Election Commission, the aide said, for examination in an ongoing inquiry into whether the group violated a federal ban on use of foreign money in U.S. elections. Wyden also is considering whether to pursue further oversight in his role as the top Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee, the aide said.
McClatchy reported in January that the FBI is investigating whether Torshin, deputy governor of Russia’s central bank, secretly routed funds to the NRA to boost its effort to back Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. The NRA was Trump’s biggest supporter, spending about $30 million on him during the campaign.
In his letter dated Tuesday, Frazer said about $525 Russia-related money came in donations. The rest came in membership dues or magazine subscriptions from 23 people associated with Russian addresses – possibly including Americans living in Russia or Russian nationals living in the United States.
The Trump administration imposed stiff sanctions on seven Russian oligarchs and 17 government officials, including Torshin, in retaliation for Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. elections. Responding to a Wyden query about whether the NRA has accepted donations from sanctioned individuals, Frazer wrote that “we are aware of one such individual, Alexander Torshin, who has been a non-voting life member of the NRA since 2012. He has paid membership dues, but has not made any contributions, and is therefore not a member of any major donor program.”
Frazer also said that “there were no significant donations from foreign nationals generally in 2015-2016” and that no Russian nationals have participated in any of the group’s “major donor programs,” one of which seeks contributions of at least $1 million.
“We believe this and our previous letters have provided enough information to address any legitimate concerns about these issues,” Frazer wrote. “Therefore, given the extraordinarily time-consuming and burdensome nature of your requests, we must respectfully decline to engage in this beyond the clear answers we have already provided.”
Politico reported recently that the FEC had begun examining whether Russia money had flowed to the NRA after an election watchdog group filed a complaint with the agency.
Lawrence Noble, a former FEC general counsel who now holds the same title at the Campaign Legal Center, said he assumes the commission “will consider the correspondence between Wyden and the NRA as they decide whether to open a formal inquiry."
The NRA did not immediately respond to requests for comment on Wyden’s referral.
Interest in whether Russians may have disguised funds going to the NRA by moving it through shell companies has been fueled by a secret report in which Spanish authorities alleged Torshin had laundered Russian mob money into Spanish banks and hotels – an allegation that Torshin has denied.
Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, a senior member of both the Senate Judiciary and Intelligence Committees, has sent requests for documents and interviews to both Maria Butina, a Torshin protege and Russian gun rights activist, and Paul Erickson, a conservative operator and NRA fundraiser. The two formed a South Dakota company, Bridges LLC, in February 2016. Erickson told McClatchy in an interview last year that Bridges, which doesn’t have to disclose donors, was set up to help Butina with her graduate school expenses, an unconventional purpose for an LLC.
Peter Stone is a McClatchy special correspondent