Ties between the National Rifle Association and influential Russians were substantial and potentially lucrative enough to render the politically potent gun lobby an “asset” of Russia, according to a Senate Democrat’s year-plus investigation.
More than 4,000 pages of NRA records provided to Sen. Ron Wyden, the top Democrat on the finance committee, documented deep connections between the beleaguered gun group and Maria Butina, who in December pleaded guilty to conspiring to act as a Russian agent without registering with the Justice Department. Wyden’s report, released Friday, August 6, 2020, and undertaken without the cooperation of committee Republicans, indicates that greed motivated some NRA officials to engage in the outreach.
Butina also made clear to NRA officials long before their controversial Butina-facilitated December 2015 trip to Moscow that Alexander Torshin, her patron and an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, was a man with mysterious pull in the Kremlin. She emailed former NRA president David Keene in January 2015 that Torshin’s appointment to the Russian central bank was “the result of a ‘big game’ in which he has a very important role. All the details we can discuss with you only in person.”
“During the 2016 election, Russian nationals effectively used the promise of lucrative personal business opportunities to capture the NRA and gain access to the American political system,” Wyden said.
William A. Brewer III, counsel to the NRA, said the report “promotes a politically motivated and contrived narrative.” “An avalanche of proof confirms that the NRA, as an organization, was never involved in the activities about which the Democrats write,” he said in a statement.
In addition to scrutinizing the December 2015 NRA trip, Wyden found that the NRA hosted former Russian ambassador Sergei Kislyak for a three-hour tour of its headquarters in August 2015. Kislyak was a key figure in Russia’s 2016 election interference before former national security adviser Mike Flynn pleaded guilty to misrepresenting his conversations with him to the FBI. An NRA calendar entry provided to Wyden suggests that NRA leaders took Kislyak hunting at the Grand National Waterfowl Hunt weeks before the Moscow trip.
Wyden’s report shows the NRA officials, donors, and supporters meeting with Russian officials under U.S. sanctions during the Moscow trip, something previously reported. But it also shows that Butina ensured the NRA would send sufficiently senior leaders, something necessary to enhance Torshin’s prestige, by dangling opportunities for NRA luminaries to enrich themselves. While U.S. sanctions do not make meeting with foreigners under sanction illegal, U.S. nationals can’t conduct business with them.
Returning from Moscow further inclined the NRA to aid its Russian friend Butina, who presented herself as the head of a rare Russian gun-rights foundation. Soon after, the NRA bought Butina and Torshin memberships in a hunters’ advocacy group known as Safari Club International. Later, one of the key NRA figures on the Moscow trip, Pete Brownell, confirmed to Wyden that he personally introduced Butina to Donald Trump Jr. at the NRA’s 2016 annual meeting, though Brownell’s counsel dismissed it as a “chance encounter.” Butina would also write to NRA heavies for formal invitations to their events, something she said would help her get visas to enter the country.
The NRA has attempted to distance itself from the Moscow trip after it became politically controversial. It told Wyden’s office in May that any relationship “certain individuals, including NRA supporters and volunteers” had with Butina and Torshin was entirely distinct from NRA business.
Yet Wyden’s report shows then-NRA president Allan Cors, who backed out of the trip, contemporaneously referring to it in an email to Torshin as a chance to “represent the NRA” to influential Russians. Among those Russians were Butina’s reputed moneyman, Igor Pisarsky, whom Butina presented as Putin’s “campaign manager”; the sanctioned Russian deputy prime minister for the defense industry, Dmitry Rogozin; and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. Documentation the NRA provided, the report notes, did not show “action to discourage or prevent its officers from using organization resources to explore business opportunities or to meet with sanctioned individuals and entities” during the trip.
Commenting on that trip, Andrew Arulanandam, NRA managing director of Public Affairs, said that “certain NRA members made the trip of their own accord” and that it “was not an official NRA trip.” “NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre was opposed to it and, at his directive, no NRA staff members or employees attended,” Arulanandam said in a statement to The Daily Beast.
Cors’ absence from the trip was a problem for Butina. Without a senior NRA leader to show off to the influential Russians who had agreed to meetings, Torshin could lose face. “Many powerful figures in the Kremlin are counting on Torshin to prove his American connections—a last minute important member cancellation could affect his political future,” she emailed. In November, Butina turned to Brownell, the NRA’s then-vice president and Cors’ future successor, with an urgent plea for his attendance.
Outside the NRA, Brownell runs a business that sells guns, ammunition, and firearms accessories. A Brownell spokesperson told The Daily Beast in February that Brownell took the trip “understanding that it was an NRA-related event organized with the support of the organization.” His corporate compliance officer later said Brownell could meet with sanctioned Russians insofar as his trip was not business but an NRA “cultural exchange.”
But materials Wyden acquired cast doubt on that. Butina, in emails, told Brownell that while it was an NRA trip, “especially for you and your company I have something more.” She told him that Russian gun manufacturers “are ready to meet you and talk about export and import deals.” Another email, this one from Brownell, records the NRA vice president musing that he was “not interested in attending if [it is] just an NRA trip.” In another email, Brownell called the “strictly diplomatic” trip a chance to “introduce our company to the governing individuals throughout Russia.” Among the people the NRA met with in Russia were representatives of the Kalashnikov Concern, a weapons manufacturer under U.S. sanctions. The report states that later Brownell explored a deal with someone he met on the trip but ultimately canceled because the Russian was unable to follow proper import-export rules.
Brownell recently resigned from the NRA’s board, a move seen as part of the organization’s recent turmoil. In April, its president Oliver North resigned after losing a power struggle to longtime NRA magnate Wayne LaPierre. The group is locked in bitter litigation with its former ad firm, which might be the least of its legal woes, considering investigations into its tax status by attorneys general in New York and the District of Columbia.
A representative for Brownell did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Brownell was not the only one to whom Butina appealed with an offer unrelated to NRA business. Wyden’s report corroborated a Daily Beast report that Butina told trip attendee Keene, who was also the Washington Times’ opinion editor, that one of the meetings was with a Russian media oligarch who would be able to secure Keene an interview with Putin for the paper.
Butina also dangled to the NRA a meeting with Putin himself, though no such meeting appears to have manifested. An email ahead of the trip from Butina’s since-indicted boyfriend, the GOP consultant Paul Erickson, to Brownell promised “private meetings with the top ministers in Putin’s government and private lunches in oligarch’s dachas.” Butina fronted money for the attendance of another trip attendee, NRA donor Jim Liberatore, for which the NRA reimbursed her with $6,000 from its president’s budget.
The NRA was an open door for Butina and Torshin, whose goal was to use the organization as a lever to move U.S. politics in a direction more agreeable to Russian interests. In addition to welcoming the two to the NRA’s own events, the NRA aided them in attending other conservative-friendly gatherings, including the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, a staple event for politicians of both parties. Butina asked then-presidential candidate Donald Trump a question about U.S.-Russian relations at a campaign stop in Las Vegas, boasted of being a conduit for his campaign’s communications to Russia, and was photographed with prominent GOP politicians like Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker.
Wyden stopped a step short of recommending the NRA lose its tax-exempt status, citing insufficient cooperation from the group. “A broader review of NRA’s activities in recent years” from the IRS was needed to determine if the NRA’s Russian connections fit within a “persistent pattern of impermissible conduct,” the report concluded.
“The totality of evidence uncovered during my investigation, as well as the mounting evidence of rampant self-dealing, indicate the NRA may have violated tax laws. This report lays out in significant detail that the NRA lied about the 2015 delegation trip to Moscow,” Wyden said. “This was an official trip undertaken so NRA insiders could get rich—a clear violation of the principle that tax-exempt resources should not be used for personal benefit.”