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How the NRA Sold Out America

A new report details the limits of the gun lobby's patriotism when there's Russian moolah on the line.

Karen Bleier/AFP/Getty Images

Last Friday, the Senate Finance Committee dropped what would have been—in any other timeline—a bombshell that might have dominated headlines and talking heads for days: A 77-page report, issued by Senator Ron Wyden, detailing the means and machinations with which a number of Russian figures cozied up to the National Rifle Association (NRA) since 2014. The top-line findings are there in the title of the report: “The NRA and Russia: How a Tax-Exempt Organization Became a Foreign Asset.” 

The report is the most detailed examination to date of one of the primary aspects of Russia’s broader 2016 interference and influence efforts. Text messages and timelines, meeting rosters and discreet communiques, feasts and fêtes and flights back and forth from Moscow: Everything you ever wanted to know about how the NRA became an all-too-willing prong of the Kremlin’s 2016 schemes is there, in garish, unsparing detail. This volume reveals how cheap the NRA’s claims to patriotism, to American pride, to security for person and nation alike really are. The NRA sold out its legacy for a quick, craven buck—in a way that eerily paralleled the Trump campaign’s own interactions with Russia in 2016.  

Many of the details of the Russians’ operations in the compendium have been reported elsewhere, including the key players who greased the skids. Alexander Torshin—a former Russian Central Bank official, now sanctioned by the U.S. government—makes an obligatory appearance in the report, wining and dining former NRA presidents David Keene and Pete Brownell. Maria Butina—now a convicted foreign agent, awaiting a deportation back to Russia once her prison sentence ends this month—joins the mise-en-scène as well, sidling up to the NRA’s brass to convince them that she was simply an innocent young woman, interested solely in the kinds of arms peddled by the NRA and its backers, and maybe in re-building bridges between Moscow and Washington along the way. The Torshin-Butina tandem used their NRA connections to launch themselves to meetings with GOP officials, interactions with Donald Trump’s family, and events where they could lob questions at then-candidate Trump himself. 

But the report fills in one of the largest gaps remaining within the entire, sordid saga: Why did the NRA leadership play along so willingly? Why did they lap up Butina’s and Torshin’s spin, their profession of mutual interests in Glocks and Kalashnikovs and AR-15s, so readily? Why were they so cheerfully duped? 

The answer is money. Specifically, the kind of gob-smacking lucre the NRA thought they could make in building up an arms market in Russia. It didn’t matter who their partners were, nor did it concern the organization that they would be yukking it up with Russian officials specifically sanctioned by Washington—that is, men specifically cited by the U.S. government for their role in upending the post-Cold War order. Those who the NRA palled around with were the authors of invasion, war, and thousands of deaths in Ukraine, and those chiefly responsible for expanding the kleptocratic networks which have consistently undermined American interests. Who needs patriotism when you can have profits? 

Brownell, as the report lays out, is a perfect case study in just how easily the NRA leadership could be bought off by those aiming to corrode American power—and how shallow the NRA’s supposed patriotism truly was. As Butina and Torshin worked to put together the NRA’s infamous December 2015 trip to Moscow, Brownell was an obvious name to add to the itinerary. Brownell, however, had one stipulation. As the report notes, “Brownell made clear that he would not have participated in the trip but for the opportunity to advance his personal business interests.” Brownell didn’t even bother to cloak his efforts; as he phrased it in one of the emails attached, “I am not interested in attending if just an [NRA] trip,” adding later that he wouldn’t make the trip if there was no “import or export opportunity” in it for him.

Butina was all too eager to play up this line for her marks. Meetings with Russian arms manufacturers—and sanctioned Russian officials—soon followed. With promises of riches flowing, Brownell and his colleagues were steered directly into the arms of an operation whose real aim was to create a backchannel to the GOP, and eventually lift the sanctions that had been placed on the folks hobnobbing with NRA leadership. 

The benefits of these arrangements didn’t just flow to those with official positions in the NRA. As the report outlines, some of the mega-donors bankrolling the NRA wanted in on the action, as well. Joe Gregory—a burly Tennessee multi-millionaire who served as the face of the NRA’s ultra-elite “Ring of Freedom” donor program—decided that the NRA’s 2015 trip to Moscow would be the perfect occasion to make his first trip to Russia, and to schmooze with those sanctioned by the U.S. An appreciative Gregory returned the favor in 2016 by bringing Butina to the 2016 National Prayer Breakfast, where she mingled with the upper crust of America’s Christian conservative community. Butina’s preferred method of transportation to the National Prayer Breakfast, according to the report? Gregory’s private plane. 

It’s difficult to overstate just how blinded Brownell, Keene and their colleagues were when it came to Butina’s and Torshin’s real designs. All they had to do was, say, visit Butina’s YouTube page, where they would have seen—and where you can still watch—Butina exhort an audience to back the Russian-supported separatists tearing apart eastern Ukraine. Minimal vetting of Butina’s social media presence would have revealed her boasting of visiting Crimea in the immediate aftermath of Russia’s illegal annexation, calling to arm separatists, and, as Mother Jones reported, “pledging support to a leader of a militia group that violently seized a Crimean news outlet it deemed ‘pro-American.’” Had they wanted to, they could have dropped the FBI a line to see if they had any information on Torshin—and they likely would have received details of Torshin’s alleged central role in a Russian organized crime ring in Spain, where one of the gangsters referred to Torshin as “the godfather.”

Lulled by the promise of fresh boodle, they were instead gulled by the Butina-Torshin duo. As Keene’s wife wrote in one of the emails contained in last week’s report, “David and I consider Maria and Alexander dear friends, so we will remain in touch. What have I missed?” 

The answer to that question seems to be “any semblance of ethical bearings.” Nevertheless, that the NRA has turned out to be only as patriotic as their bank accounts allow is a hallmark of the Trump era. The same greed-driven calculus has seeped into every cranny of a Trump administration that prefers to mine illicit connections for personal profit rather than do what’s best for the U.S. The entire Giuliani-Ukraine affair is only the latest example of a White House apparatchik who’s willing to sell out his country’s interests for an electoral advantage necessary to sustain the grift. 

That these arrangements presented a mile-wide opening for Russian actors to upend the 2016 election is not surprising. It’s why Trump and his campaign were more than willing to hear out prospective offers on a Trump Tower in Moscow, delivered alongside dirt on Hillary Clinton. It’s why a number of far-right Christian fundamentalist organizations continue to snuggle up to sanctioned Russian oligarchs and their minions. And it’s why former national security adviser Michael Flynn, one of the first members Trump appointed to his Cabinet, decided to attend a 2015 gala for the Russian propaganda arm RT, pocketing tens of thousands of dollars along the way—and touching down in Moscow at the same time as a greedy cohort from the NRA. With open arms and open checkbooks, all of these malefactors were welcomed. Now, they’ve been thrillingly exposed as well.