God, guns … and Russia?

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In 2016, the National Rifle Association (NRA) spent $30.3 million to elect Donald Trump. In addition, according to a report from OpenSecrets Blog and The Trace, they spent $20 million on six Senate races. The total, more than $50 million, represented 96 percent of the lobbying group’s outside spending during the 2016 cycle.

The close relationship between the NRA and Donald Trump began in May, when the organization endorsed the candidate earlier than it had ever endorsed a Republican presidential contender. Trump appeared before thousands of people at the NRA convention in Louisville, Kentucky, where he gleefully accepted the organization’s official support.

Perhaps it never occurred to anyone to wonder why the NRA was so quick to endorse Donald Trump, who was not then known to be a fanatic ammo sexual interested in interpreting the Second Amendment to allow the average man on the street to own an arsenal of weaponry. According to a report of the early endorsement by Nora Kelly at The Atlantic:

Trump’s allegiance to gun rights has been spotty. He once expressed strong support for an assault-weapons ban and criticized politicians who “walk the NRA line.” Of course, he’s changed his mind since he got into politics, and that’s enough for the NRA.

Politico called the early endorsement “unprecedented.” Politico writer Sarah Wheaton wrote about the NRA membership’s pushback on the early endorsement, and included this pseudo-explanation from an unnamed NRA official:

“It was a very clear choice,” said an NRA official on Saturday, who insisted on speaking anonymously about internal NRA deliberations. “Hillary Clinton is not an option. She must be defeated at all costs.”

The campaign was “heated,” the official said, so the NRA saw the early endorsement as “an opportunity to begin the process of bringing everyone together to defeat Hillary Clinton and elect a pro-Second Amendment president.”

But perhaps there were other, less obvious reasons behind the early endorsement. Like a December 2015 meeting in Moscow.

At 22 years old, Maria Butina arrived in Moscow from Siberia, where she was raised, and very soon helped form a NRA-lite movement called The Right to Bear Arms. A supporter of Vladimir Putin and his political party, it never appears to have occurred to her that if Putin wanted Russians to own handguns, Russians would own them. And he would have no need for pressure from an outside group.

Nevertheless, she joined forces with Alexander Torshin, a Putin ally and high-ranking member of the United Russia Party, to push for legislation allowing freer use of weapons in Russia. As the first deputy speaker of the Russian senate, Torshin proposed but failed to pass a law that would have allowed public use of firearms.

When he presented the bill to his colleagues, days after the Aurora, Colorado, movie theater shooting that left a dozen dead, his colleagues were not sold. They feared Russians, too, would all shoot each other. “How can you have so little trust for yourself, for your people,” he asked them. In 2014, however, Putin’s government did change the law to allow licensed gun owners to carry weapons in public for self-defense.

Long a proponent of Russian gun rights, Torshin was appointed the deputy governor of Russia’s central bank in 2015 and took Butina along as his “special assistant.” Torshin had developed contacts with the NRA back in 2011 when he was introduced to its president, David Keene, who was then also chair of the American Conservative Union, sponsors of the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), and who now serves as the opinion editor of the Washington Times. Keene invited Torshin and his assistant, Butina, to attend the 2014 NRA annual meeting as his guests.

Earlier this year, Torshin almost got the opportunity for a meet-and-greet with Donald Trump before the annual National Prayer Breakfast. But it was canceled at the last minute, due perhaps to the Spanish investigation into Torshin’s ties to organized crime and money laundering. He was considered the “godfather” of the operation by Spanish authorities and they had planned his arrest earlier in 2013 during his trip to Spain, but he failed to make that trip. According to Michael Isikoff’s report for Yahoo News:

...Torshin has been on the radar of international law enforcement officials as a result of a long-running Spanish police investigation into a Russian organized crime syndicate known as the Taganskaya. The group has been accused of laundering profits from racketeering, extortion and other criminal activities through real estate and hotel investments on the Spanish island of Mallorca. Spanish police have made several arrests in connection with the investigation, and an alleged leader of the group, a Russian businessman named Alexander Romanov, pleaded guilty to money-laundering charges in the case last year.

The El País story reports that Spanish national police had wiretapped Romanov and recorded 33 telephone conversations he had with Torshin in which the accused mobster referred to the Russian banker as “el padrino,” or godfather. Alerted that Torshin was planning to attend Romanov’s birthday party on August 23, 2013, the national police prepared to arrest the banker, deploying a dozen officers at the airport and at the Mallorca hotel where the party was to take place. But a Russian official in the Ministry of Interior at the Russian Embassy in Madrid had been informed about the operation. When Torshin failed to show, Spanish police concluded the Interior official had tipped Torshin off. “We suspect that it was he who advised that Torshin was being investigated in Spain and for that reason, he did not come,” a judicial source is quoted as telling El País.

In addition to his NRA ties, Torshin has also cultivated a long-term relationship with the evangelical movement on the right. According to the Washington Post:

Torshin was also a leader in a Russian movement to align government more closely with the Orthodox church.

After Trump’s victory, Torshin returned to the United States with a delegation of prominent Russians to attend the annual National Prayer Breakfast in Washington in February. In addition to his gun-rights work, Torshin also had helped build a similar prayer breakfast in Moscow from an obscure monthly event a decade ago into one more resembling the annual ritual in Washington.

Putin now sends an annual greeting to the Russian event, a recognition of its value in allowing “Russian and American guests to come together under one roof in order to rebuild the relationship between the two countries that has degraded under the administration of President Obama,” said breakfast organizer Peter Sautov in an email.

This outreach to the evangelical movement did not stop at Torshin:

... in December 2015, evangelist Franklin Graham met privately with Putin for 45 minutes, securing from the Russian president an offer to help with an upcoming conference on the persecution of Christians. Graham was impressed, telling The Washington Post that Putin “answers questions very directly and doesn’t dodge them like a lot of our politicians do.”

Franklin Graham, son of Billy Graham, was not the only evangelical impressed with changes in Russia. Brian Brown, president of the National Organization for Marriage, is also pleased with the Russian government’s terror campaign against its gay population.

“What I realized was that there was a great change happening in the former Soviet Union,” he said. “There was a real push to re-instill Christian values in the public square.”

Apparently, there was a lot going on in Moscow in December 2015. The now-notorious dinner in honor of the RT network that featured a table with Putin, retired Gen. Michael Flynn (now Trump’s former national security adviser), and Jill Stein was held on December 10.

The Right to Bear Arms hosted a delegation from the NRA during the same time frame. Attendees included David Keene, NRA board member Pete Brownell, NRA donor Joe Gregory, and Milwaukee County Sheriff David A. Clarke, he of the boy-scout-merit-badge-covered uniform shirt who became a top Trump surrogate. They not only met with Torshin and Butina but with a sanctioned Russian, according to Tim Mack of The Daily Beast.

In March 2014, the U.S. government sanctioned Dmitry Rogozin—a hardline deputy to Vladimir Putin, the head of Russia’s defense industry and longtime opponent of American power—in retaliation for the invasion of Crimea and eastern Ukraine.

Eighteen months later, the National Rifle Association, Donald Trump’s most powerful outside ally during the 2016 election, sent a delegation to Moscow that met with him.

Both Torshin and Butina share photos of their meetings with NRA members on social media.

They’re not the only ones who posted photos showing links with the NRA: Rogozin posted photos of his meetings with the NRA in 2015. In one photo, the deputy prime minister is standing at what appears to be a shooting range with Gregory, Brownell, and Keene.

In another photo, Rogozin is at a conference table with Clarke and Brownell. Putin ally and former Russian senator Alexander Torshin is also seated with the group, along with a number of other unidentified individuals.

Now it is possible (and completely legal) for Americans to meet sanctioned individuals as long as they do not do any business with them. But it's hardly believable that these people never discussed business over the course of the visit or the American sanctions that prevented the importation and sale in the U.S. of the AK-47, invented by the Russian Mikhail Kalashnikov, a friend of Alexander Torshin. Okay, it is possible. Maybe.

Since the Las Vegas shooting, the NRA has laid low. But with their $30 million investment in this administration, it’s possible that they don’t need to make too much noise. There is the talk of a bill that will outlaw the bump stocks that are used to convert a semi-automatic weapon to fully automatic, but don't kid yourself that this is any great achievement—especially not if it comes as part of a compromise that allows the sale and use of silencers. And the fact that so many GOP members are voicing tentative support may indicate that the NRA is willing to bargain on this after-market device in order to expand the market for their silencers. After all, Donald Trump Jr. has appeared in an infomercial for one of the largest manufacturers.

So far, the NRA has succeeded in rolling back the Obama administration policy that limited the access that certain mentally ill people have to weapons. It is unlikely that they will back down from the SHARE Act.

The growing Russian ties between our gun lobby and the right-wing evangelical movement should be an issue of concern as great as the Russian interference in our 2016 and future elections. Putin is a long-term planner who now has ties to the U.S. State Department (as long as Tillerson is not fired), the NRA (which in turn controls the GOP), the religious right, and the Oval Office. Mueller really needs to expand his investigation.

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