Three key figures, including the founder of a Russian gun rights group, refused to submit to interviews or produce documents requested by Senate Democrats investigating whether the Kremlin used the National Rifle Association to boost Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign.
Nonetheless, Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee said in a report Wednesday that their preliminary investigation turned up “a number of documents” suggesting Russia used connections to the NRA “as a means of accessing and assisting Mr. Trump and his campaign.”
“The Kremlin may also have used the NRA to secretly fund Mr. Trump’s campaign,” the minority report concluded.
While qualified, the findings align with a McClatchy report in January that the FBI was investigating whether a top Russian banker funneled money to the powerful gun lobby group to aid Trump’s underdog campaign.
The committee’s Democrats, led by California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, conducted their own investigation of aspects of Russian’s 2016 election meddling after the committee’s Republican chairman, Iowa Sen. Charles Grassley, declined to do so. However, the Democrats were hamstrung because they lacked subpoena power that would give their requests legal force.
The NRA was Trump’s biggest financial backer, spending more than $30 million on his behalf.
The committee Democrats pointed to connections between the NRA and Alexander Torshin, the deputy governor of Russia’s central bank who also is a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, and Maria Butina, a Torshin protégé who founded the Russian group Right to Bear Arms.
Torshin attended several NRA conventions in the United States. Butina and Paul Erickson, a Trump supporter and adviser, formed a limited liability company in February 2016 in South Dakota, where Erickson lives. Erickson told McClatchy the firm was created in case Butina needed financial help with her graduate studies at American University in Washington.
Torshin and Butina “have longstanding ties” to former NRA President David Keene, the report said. Erickson told McClatchy last year that he accompanied Keene on a 2013 trip to Moscow to attend an early conference of the Right to Bear Arms.
“During the campaign, Mr. Torshin, Ms. Butina, and their intermediaries repeatedly offered the campaign back channels to Russia and relayed requests from President Putin to meet with Mr. Trump,” the Democratic report said. Much of the report was devoted to questions about the June 9, 2016 Trump Tower meeting between Donald Trump Jr. and other Trump campaign officials and several Russians that had been advertised as an opportunity for the campaign to collect dirt on Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.
Feinstein sent letters to Butina, Keene and Erickson requesting documents and asking them to appear for interviews, but they refused to cooperate, the report said.
Thus, “the extent of Russia’s use of the NRA as an avenue for connecting with and potentially supporting the Trump campaign needs examination,” said the document.
The NRA, in recent letter exchanges with Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon, said it received only $2,500 in donations from Russians during the 2016 election cycle and that those funds were not used in the election. But it declined to disclose the sources of so-called “dark” contributions whose identities are not required to be made public or whether it knows the trues sources of all those funds.
Asked for comment, NRA spokesman Andrew Arulanandam said of the report: "This is the same tired old soup reheated."
But CNN reported April 27 that the NRA has been culling years of documents related to its communications with Torshin in anticipation of an investigation. The group also has said it is re-examining its relationship with Torshin, who was among 17 Russian government officials recently hit with Treasury Department sanctions that bar Americans from doing business with them.
The current status of the FBI inquiry, part of Justice Department Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s broad counterintelligence and criminal inquiries into Russia’s election interference, is unclear.