For months, the National Rifle Association has had a stock answer to queries about an investigation into whether Russian money was funneled to the gun rights group to aid Donald Trump’s presidential campaign.
The NRA, which spent $30 million-plus backing Trump’s bid, has heard nothing from the FBI or any other law enforcement agency, spokesman Andrew Arulanandam reiterated in an email the other day.
Legal experts, though, say there’s an easy explanation for that. They say it would be routine for Justice Department Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigators, who are looking at the NRA’s funding as part of a broader inquiry into Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. elections, to secretly gain access to the NRA’s tax returns from the Internal Revenue Service.
On the returns, the group was required to identify its so-called “dark money” donors -- companies and wealthy individuals who financed $21 million of the group’s publicly disclosed pro-Trump spending, as well as its multimillion-dollar efforts to heighten voter turnout. The NRA’s nonprofit status allows it to shield those donors’ names from the public, but not the IRS.
A central question for Mueller’s office is whether any of the confidential donors’ names hold clues that could enable investigators to trace a donation camouflaged to hide its Russian origins – such as a shell company that might be the end point in a chain of offshore transactions.
It is illegal for foreign funds to be spent to influence U.S. elections.
Prosecutors’ requests to federal magistrates or judges for access to tax information are usually made “entirely in the background, with no notice to the subject of the investigation,” said David Axelrod, a Columbus, Ohio lawyer who previously prosecuted cases for the Justice Department’s Tax Division.
The main focus of Mueller’s inquiry, as McClatchy reported in January, has been whether Alexander Torshin, deputy governor of Russia’s central bank and a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, arranged for Russian money to flow through the gun rights group to aid Trump, people familiar with the inquiry say.
Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon said in a statement to McClatchy that if investigators haven’t yet obtained a list of the NRA’s secret donors, it’s a vital step for determining if Russians “used shell companies as part of a scheme to influence the 2016 election.”
“Investigators must follow the money wherever it leads to understand the full story of Russia’s attack on our democracy,” said Wyden, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee that is examining Russia’s election interference.
U.S. intelligence agencies have concluded Russia’s intervention was aimed at helping Trump defeat Democrat Hillary Clinton, whose outspoken advocacy for stricter gun control laws won the enmity of the NRA even as her criticism of Putin estranged the Kremlin.
The NRA’s general counsel, John Frazer, said in a flurry of letters with Wyden earlier this year that the group’s donations from Russia during the 2016 election cycle totaled $2,500, but did not reveal the extent to which the group traces the true origins of its $350 million in annual funding.
A spokesman for Mueller’s office has declined to comment on the NRA inquiry, which the sources described on condition of anonymity because it is confidential.
Still unclear is just how and why the nation’s leading gun rights lobby became entangled in Mueller’s sweeping investigation that has preoccupied the president and gripped the nation. The question is, did substantial Russian money find its way into the group’s coffers – and if so, to what extent were NRA officials or the group’s allies aware of it?
Steve Hall, a former chief of the CIA’s Russia operations, suspects that NRA board members and current and former officers may have been duped over several years into playing a role in a Kremlin-directed intelligence operation that eventually offered the potential for both a communication line to Trump's team and a way to put money behind his campaign.
He said he suspects that current and former NRA leaders failed to recognize that the Kremlin saw their group as a tool for its “dangerous propaganda machine. … That’s the most innocent explanation: The NRA got snookered.”
Still, said Hall, who retired from the agency in 2015, the NRA-Russian connection bears close examination by Mueller.
“It’s just so insidious, and it sort of ticks all the boxes: connections to the current administration, major backer of then-candidate Trump, the Russians wanting to get in and manipulate our own political system.”
Torshin has drawn scrutiny in part because Spanish prosecutors accused him of money-laundering and also because he cultivated relationships with the NRA that nearly earned him a meeting with Trump.
He befriended then-NRA President David Keene beginning in 2011, became a lifetime member of the group and attended a string of NRA national conventions in the ensuing years. That led to Moscow visits by Keene and other NRA heavyweights in 2013 and 2015 to meet with a Russian gun rights group that Torshin was instrumental in forming and later with a deputy prime minister.
The Spanish prosecutors, who have cooperated with the FBI for years, say Torshin has a dark side. They have accused him of laundering money for the Russian mob, an allegation Torshin has denied.
Last month during a visit to Washington, chief Spanish prosecutor Jose Grinda spent several hours meeting with FBI officials, according to two people familiar with his itinerary. Both sources spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the matter.
Grinda also met with journalists at the Hudson Institute, where he revealed that a few months ago he provided the FBI with 33 audio recordings of Torshin, including one in which a since-convicted Russian money launderer called him “godfather,” according to Yahoo News.
On April 6, the Treasury Department included Torshin on a list of Russians sanctioned in response to the Kremlin-ordered invasion of Eastern Ukraine, Moscow’s meddling in the 2016 elections and other aggressive actions. In light of all of the revelations about Torshin, the NRA reevaluated its relationship with him. His NRA membership is now “frozen,” spokesman Arulanandam said.
Hall, who worked earlier as the CIA’s Moscow station chief, believes that Torshin’s involvement with the NRA was no accident. Nor were meetings between NRA representatives and Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin and even Sergei Rudov, manager of a far-right Russian religious foundation, he said.
It looks like the Kremlin was pulling the strings at every turn, in a country where that happens “to a degree that cannot even be dreamed of here,” Hall said. “Everybody knows the consequences of not doing what the Kremlin wants you to do.”
John Aquilino, a former NRA spokesman, also is baffled by the NRA’s outreach to Torshin and Moscow.
"The NRA has fallen into a public relations trap, and the Russians knew damn well what they were doing," Aquilino said in a phone interview. “The NRA was naive and got hoodwinked."
"The NRA and the gun control issue is a perfect example of an issue that would fire up the populace and sow discord,” Aquilino said. He pointed to the fact that a Russian troll farm bought dozens of Facebook ads on gun rights as part of a 2016 social media blitz aimed at dividing Americans and helping Trump.
But Michael Carpenter, a senior Pentagon and National Security Council official specializing in Russia issues during the Obama administration, said a relationship between Russia and the NRA would be "mutually beneficial."
Carpenter tweeted Monday that "NRA lawyers know how to use Google and were no doubt familiar with their contacts' links to the Kremlin and to organized crime."
The NRA, a flashpoint for controversy given its opposition to gun control legislation, has been resolute about protecting the anonymity of most of its donors to its lobbying arm, the Institute for Legislative Action. However, the institute has trumpeted pledges by some gun makers, such as Sturm, Ruger and Co.'s August 2016 commitment of $2 from each gun sale, with a goal to raise $4 million.
Where potential financial crimes are involved, neither the NRA nor any other group can protect the identities of large dark-money donors from investigators, even if the fortress-like IRS holds the records. Investigators need only show “a reasonable cause to believe” that the information sought is relevant to a federal crime – a lower threshold than that required for a search warrant.
FBI and IRS agents collaborating on follow-the-money investigations commonly use “secret subpoenas, tax orders and other investigative techniques to collect an extraordinary amount of financial information without their target even knowing that the investigation exists,” said one former senior federal prosecutor, who spoke on condition of anonymity due to sensitive relationships with investigators.
Michael Zeldin, a former senior Justice Department official who oversaw money-laundering investigations, said that “it would be basic blocking and tackling for the prosecutors to seek all relevant tax returns."
If the tax filings identified a donor as a shell company, he said, the next step would be to “determine how difficult it will be to trace” the true source of the money.
Torshin’s enthusiastic overtures to the NRA energized a number of the group's leaders to visit Russia. During a
2013 trip, Torshin introduced Keene and conservative operative Paul Erickson to his group, the Right to Bear Arms, and Maria Butina, a protégé who headed the group. Butina soon enrolled a graduate student in the United States, where she was awarded lifetime membership in the NRA and became a fixture at the group's meetings.
In 2015, the Russians lavishly wined and dined a second NRA delegation that included high-dollar NRA fundraiser, Joe Gregory, and Pete Brownell, the head of a major U.S. firearms firm who later became the NRA’s president.
A meeting between the second delegation and Deputy Prime Minister Rogozin, who oversaw Russia’s defense and firearms industries, has drawn sharp criticism from Kremlin analysts because Rogozin had been placed under U.S. sanctions.
Ex-CIA Russia specialist Hall said he cannot fathom what the NRA officials hoped to obtain from Russia; Putin opposes arming his citizenry with more than hunting rifles.
Russia, though, may have had an agenda for its gun makers.
The NRA visit included a tour of the Russian firearms manufacturer Orsis, which also was placed under U.S. sanctions in 2014, perhaps to highlight Moscow’s hopes that victory by the right candidate could bring those curbs to an end.
Carpenter, the former Obama administration official, said Moscow had also sought to lift earlier limits on Russian gun imports from companies including the iconic Kalashnikov. But easing the restrictions “obviously wasn't in the interest of U.S. gun manufacturers,” he said.
“So Russia turned to the NRA and other gun enthusiasts to try to promote the issue,” he said. “At the time, Dmitry Rogozin was overseeing this effort.”
The Torshin-led mating dance between Moscow and the NRA culminated at the NRA’s convention in Louisville in late May 2016, when Trump received an early endorsement from the pro-gun goliath.
Torshin tried unsuccessfully that week to arrange a personal meeting with Trump, but he did cadge a short chat with Donald Trump Jr., an avid hunter. Trump Jr.’s lawyer told McClatchy it was mostly just “small talk” about guns.
During that same time span, Erickson and Torshin each floated proposals with Trump campaign officials for a pre-election meeting between Putin and Trump, an idea that did not gain traction.
After the election, Torshin came to Washington in February 2017 to attend the annual National Prayer Breakfast, an event where he’d been a regular for more than a half dozen years, Erickson said.
Torshin also was feted at a four-hour Capitol Hill dinner organized by George O’Neill Jr. a Rockefeller heir. Attendees included Erickson and Republican Rep. Dana Rohrabacher of California, considered by some analysts to be Putin’s best friend in Washington.
Rohrabacher, in a phone interview last year, said that conservative American gun rights groups no longer look at Russia with Cold War angst, but rather “in friendly terms.” He remembered meeting Torshin in Moscow a few years earlier, calling him a “mover and shaker.”
Torshin’s 2017 visit to the U.S. would be his last for awhile. The sanctions bar him from entering the United States.
Peter Stone is a McClatchy special correspondent
Michael Woodel contributed to this report
This story has been updated to include a tweet from Michael Carpenter