Several prominent Russians, some in President Vladimir Putin’s inner circle or high in the Russian Orthodox Church, now have been identified as having contact with National Rifle Association officials during the 2016 U.S. election campaign, according to photographs and an NRA source.
The contacts have emerged amid a deepening Justice Department investigation into whether Russian banker and lifetime NRA member Alexander Torshin illegally channeled money through the gun rights group to add financial firepower to Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential bid.
Other influential Russians who met with NRA representatives during the campaign include Dmitry Rogozin, who until last month served as a deputy prime minister overseeing Russia’s defense industry, and Sergei Rudov, head of one of Russia’s largest philanthropies, the St. Basil the Great Charitable Foundation. The foundation was launched by an ultra-nationalist ally of Russian President Putin.
Even as the contacts took place, Kremlin cyber operatives were secretly hacking top Democrats’ emails and barraging Americans’ social media accounts with fake news stories aimed at damaging the image of Democratic presidential frontrunner Hillary Clinton and boosting the prospects of Republican Donald Trump.
It is a crime, potentially punishable with prison time, to donate or use foreign money in U.S. election campaigns.
Last month on Capitol Hill, Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee who examined Russian interactions with the NRA reached a preliminary conclusion that “the Kremlin may also have used the NRA to secretly fund Mr. Trump’s campaign.”
Citing that finding, Democratic Reps. Ted Lieu of California and Kathleen Rice of New York asked FBI Director Christopher Wray in a May 24 letter to expand the inquiry to also explore whether Kremlin money flowed illegally to the NRA for use in influencing House and Senate races.
“Illegal campaign contributions by a foreign nation, especially one whose interests stand in stark contrast to those of the United States, threaten the very underpinnings of our democracy and cannot remain unchallenged,” Lieu and Rice wrote.
The NRA reported spending $24.4 million to back Republican candidates for Congress in 2016.
Spokespeople for the FBI and Mueller’s office declined to comment on the letter.
Lieu, a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said in an interview that he finds it “very odd for Putin’s allies to meet with the NRA, because they don’t actually have a similar interest in making sure that people bear arms.”
The Russian government has generally restricted citizens to owning a shotgun and, after five years of licensed use, a hunting rifle.
Given the web of contacts between top Russians and the NRA during the presidential race, Lieu said, it appears that “something very bad happened in 2016.”
In a year inundated with scandals, this may be the most under-reported and significant.