President Trump has supporters all over the world. The United States, Russia … well, that may be it, actually. But isn't that enough?
It certainly was in 2016, and there's one little corner of the Russia scandal that went by so fast most people who are not political junkies probably missed it. It was a story that came out a month ago drawing a link between a Russian banker close to Vladimir Putin and none other than the National Rifle Association. The NRA has been unusually quiet about it, not speaking publicly and offering only carefully crafted statements from their lawyers. The question is, did Russians deliver millions of dollars to the NRA in 2016 to help get Trump elected? We don't know the answer yet, but one of the most intriguing things about it is that the NRA hasn't denied it.
Let's begin on Jan. 18, when Peter Stone and Greg Gordon of McClatchy reported, "The FBI is investigating whether a top Russian banker with ties to the Kremlin illegally funneled money to the National Rifle Association to help Donald Trump win the presidency." That banker, Alexander Torshin, sounds like quite a character. Not only a high-ranking executive in Russia's central bank, he's been described by Spanish judicial authorities "as a godfather in a major Russian criminal organization called Taganskaya" and is alleged to be involved in money-laundering schemes in Spain. He is also an advocate of gun rights who hosts NRA officials in Russia and attends NRA conventions in the U.S.; at the one in 2016, Torshin spoke with Donald Trump Jr., who shares his love of firearms.
There's nothing illegal about the NRA spreading its gun gospel throughout the world, of course. The question the FBI and congressional investigators (who are also looking into Torshin) have is whether Torshin gave the NRA money for its efforts in support of Trump, which would most definitely be against the law. The group spent at least $30 million to aid Trump, triple what it spent on Mitt Romney's behalf four years earlier.
When that story came out, you might have expected a full-throated denial from the NRA: This is absurd, nothing of the sort ever happened, it's all fake news, and so on. But that's not what they said. They released a statement to McClatchy saying: "We have not been contacted by the FBI about anything related to Russia." Which doesn't say anything about the underlying allegations.
But maybe they had to just go back and check through their records. The six weeks since then should have been enough time to do so, and in the meantime, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) sent letters to the group and to the Treasury Department demanding any documents relating to payments to the NRA from Russian sources. They don't have to comply — as a member of the minority, Wyden has no subpoena power — but now the NRA has replied. In a letter to Wyden, the group's general counsel repeats that "there has been no contact between the FBI and the NRA," then goes on to say that "as a longstanding policy to comply with federal election law, the NRA and its related entities do not accept funds from foreign persons in connection with United States elections." It's a good thing that's their policy, because if they were accepting funds from foreign persons in connection with United States elections, they'd be breaking the law.
The letter further notes that "NRA political decisions are made by NRA officers and executive staff, all of whom are United States citizens. No foreign nationals are consulted in any way on these decisions."
Now lawyers are very careful about their words, so what's most notable about this letter is what it doesn't say. It doesn't say Torshin hasn't given the NRA money, nor does it say that he didn't give them money in 2016. If that were the case, you'd think they would have mentioned it.
It wouldn't necessarily be illegal for them to take contributions from a Russian, even a shady Russian banker with close Kremlin ties and connections to organized crime. And you could certainly imagine how they might have stayed within the letter of the law even while violating its spirit. "I am eager to help you defeat evil Hillary Clinton and elect most excellent Putin friend Donald Trump," someone from a foreign country might say, to which an NRA representative might reply, "We can't legally take foreign contributions directly earmarked for political work, but we're always happy for financial support, wink wink." And the foreigner might then say, "I understand. Here is large check, for only non-political-type gun things, winkski winkski."
Because money is fungible, in such a hypothetical circumstance the NRA could take the foreign contribution for its non-political endeavors, then move over money that it otherwise would have spent on things other than politics and use them in service of electing Trump. And unless the government found evidence that people in the organization intended to circumvent the law in this way, it would probably be legal.
It's also possible to keep this all hidden from the public, up to the point where the special counsel starts issuing subpoenas. The NRA is a 501(c)(4) organization, which means it does not have to disclose its donors, even those who do contribute to its political work. The ability to keep (c)(4) contributions secret is part of the reason why the use of that type of organization as a vehicle for campaign spending has dramatically increased in recent years, even as other tools like super PACs have remained important.
I requested comment from the NRA, but they did not get back to me. And it should be said that this all might amount to nothing. Perhaps Torshin gave them a small donation, and he never discussed the election with them. Perhaps they were extremely careful about not violating any campaign finance laws. Perhaps when all the facts are known it will turn out to be not nearly as suspicious as it looks.
And perhaps the NRA's semi-denials aren't meant to hide anything. But something tells me there's more to this story.