Russian politician behind plot to infiltrate NRA coordinated with Kremlin: report

Russian politician behind plot to infiltrate NRA coordinated with Kremlin: report
Image credit: Pavel Starikov

Maria Butina, the Russian gun rights activist currently being held by the U.S. government following her attempts to infiltrate the National Rifle Association, has long raised uncomfortable questions about foreign influence in American politics. But a new report shows it may have gone much deeper than previously known.

According to The Daily Beast, a U.S. intelligence document reveals that Alexander Torshin, the Russian politician who masterminded Butina's plan, briefed the Kremlin on his efforts and had their support:

The report, published last year, is based on conversations that happened in 2015, before NRA leaders visited Moscow on a trip arranged by Torshin and Butina. The document does not specifically name the NRA or the Republican Party, but its context makes clear it is discussing those two American organizations. (American intelligence reports generally do not name U.S. persons or organizations for privacy and legal reasons.)
According to the report, Torshin suggested that Russian officials use the NRA to reach out to politically active Americans. Torshin, then a deputy governor at Russia’s central bank, noted the gun rights group's influence in U.S. politics. He told the Kremlin about his contacts in the NRA, including conversations and meetings in the United States, and suggested that Kremlin officials scrutinize how some people affiliated with the group viewed relations between the U.S. and Russia.

During the course of her alleged espionage, Butina, who heads a Russian group called Right to Bear Arms, worked her way into Republican circles, rubbing shoulders with everyone from former Govs. Scott Walker (R-WI) and Bobby Jindal (R-LA), to GOP pundit and former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-PA), to NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre. One witness says that during the 2016 election, Butina and Torshin used the NRA as a "conduit" to establish a "VERY private line of communication between the Kremlin and" the GOP. Paul Erickson, a GOP strategist who dated Butina during these events, is currently under criminal investigation for unregistered foreign lobbying.

There have already been hints that the Russian government has a personal interest in the Butina case. Two weeks ago, the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) detained a former U.S. Marine traveling in Russia, Paul Whelan, on bogus espionage charges. Experts suggest this arrest was a setup to demand a "spy swap," trading Whelan for Butina to free her and end the U.S. investigation into her actions — although the Russian government denies this.

As special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into ties between Russia and the Trump campaign continues to bear fruit, the Butina probe demonstrates that Trump was not Russia's only potential way into influencing U.S. politics. Their efforts were broad based — and the consequences are only now being understood.

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