Reprinted with permission from Shareblue.com.
As Trump and Pence prepare to speak at the NRA’s annual convention on Friday, the gun group is still refusing to answer questions about its ties to Russia.
The issue will be the elephant in the room at this year’s convention, which comes just a week after the House Intelligence Committee’s Minority report revealed damning new evidence about the NRA’s role as a potential conduit between Russia and the Trump campaign.
While it’s clear that the NRA has a tangled web of connections to Russian officials, it’s financial dealings remain murky.
The Federal Elections Commission (FEC) is reportedly looking at whether Russian entities gave illegal contributions to the NRA that were intended to benefit the Trump campaign. The FBI is also reportedly investigating the organization as a potential vehicle for Russian money laundering.
Congress is asking questions, too.
Rep. Ted Lieu (D-CA) sent a letter to the NRA in March expressing his concerns about its relationship with sanctioned Russian banking executive Alexander Torshin, while Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) has asked the Treasury Department for documents pertaining to Torshin’s involvement in the organization.
Wyden has also sent a series of letters asking for information about the organization’s financial ties to Russia.
After months of denials, the group’s leaders finally admitted last month in a reply to Wyden that it had accepted donations from 23 Russian-linked sources. Before that, it only acknowledged receiving money from one Russian source.
The NRA can legally accept foreign donations as long as the money is kept separate from its political activity. However, since the group has failed to provide sufficient documentation to Wyden, it’s unclear if any of the Russian money ended up flowing into the NRA’s political arm — and potentially into its campaign activities on behalf of Trump.
The organization spent at least $55 million during the 2016 election cycle, including an estimated $30 million to support Trump’s presidential bid — more than its combined spending in all races during the 2008 and 2012 presidential election cycles.
And according to McClatchy, those figures may significantly underestimate what was actually spent. Two industry insiders said the group spent upwards of $70 million, but failed to disclose some of its expenditures.
Wyden has asked the NRA for details on how it ensures that no foreign money is spent on American elections, but the NRA’s legal counsel said in latest letter that the group would not provide any additional responses to the senator.
With the group stonewalling him, Wyden released a statement Thursday announcing that he had referred his correspondence with the NRA to the FEC.
Meanwhile, CNN reported this week that the NRA is “bracing for an investigation.” Although the group has denied that it accepted illegal donations, sources told CNN that officials have been gathering materials in preparation for an investigation.
All of this comes just days ahead of the annual convention, which is scheduled for Friday. Previous NRA conventions have featured prominently in the ongoing Russia scandal.
The night before Trump spoke at the NRA’s convention in 2016, Don Jr. met with Torshin, who had been introduced to the Trump campaign as a close ally of Putin who could set up a back channel to the Kremlin. The year before, Trump spoke at the NRA’s annual convention and reportedly met Torshin.
According to NPR, Torshin — who was targeted last month by U.S. sanctions for “benefit[ing] from the Putin regime and play[ing] a key role in advancing Russia’s malign activities” — attended every convention from 2012 to 2016 in an effort to cozy up to American politicians and NRA executives.
It was during these conventions that Russia reportedly sought to infiltrate the NRA and cultivate relationships with Trump associates. According to campaign communications released alongside the House Intelligence Committee’s minority report, Russia was looking to establish a “first contact” with the Trump campaign through an intermediary at the NRA.
This year, Trump will return yet another time to speak at the convention, and although Torshin won’t be there, you can be sure Russia will send a replacement.
Then again, it may not need to — after all, with Trump in attendance, Putin knows his interests will be well represented.