The U.S. Senate Finance Committee released a report in September, claiming the National Rifle Association (NRA) acted as a "foreign asset" for Russia in the run-up to the 2016 election. The 77-page minority report released by Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) focuses on a 2015 NRA delegation to Russia, and the relationship between the NRA and Russian nationals, Maria Butina and Alexander Torshin. The report capitalizes on the anti-Russia attitude that is so prevalent today in US politics and seems like nothing more than an attempt to smear and embarrass the NRA.
Maria Butina is the founder of the Russian gun rights organization Right to Bear Arms. She is currently serving an 18-month sentence for violating the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA). FARA requires "persons acting as agents of foreign principals in a political or quasi-political capacity to make periodic public disclosure of their relationship with the foreign principal."
While the media has portrayed Butina as a spy, in reality, Butina is an ambitious gun rights activist who was caught up in the Russia hysteria of post-2016 election America. FARA was created to keep track of foreign lobbyists and has nothing to do with spies. Butina plead guilty to the charge to keep her sentence shorter.
Alexander Torshin is a former Russian politician, a gun rights enthusiast, and a friend of Butina since 2012. Torshin met Butina while he was serving as a senator in the Duma (a Russian legislative body). After the two met, Torshin tweeted, "We will start organizing our own Russian NRA." Torshin brought Butina and her organization to the Duma and discussed the possibility of loosening gun restrictions in Russia through legislation. In January 2015, Torshin finished his service as a Senator and was appointed deputy governor of the Central Bank of Russia.
Torshin had made frequent trips to the US over the years and attended NRA events, through Torshin Butina made her NRA contacts. Butina made her first trip to the US in 2014 to attend an NRA convention.
Torshin and Butina traveled to the US together in 2015 to attend another NRA convention, where there were some 2016 Republican presidential candidates in attendance. There Butina met Scott Walker, the Wisconsin governor and presidential candidate at the time. Butina posted a picture with Walker on her blog and wrote, "I did not hear any aggression towards our country, the president or my compatriots. How to know, maybe such meetings are the beginning of a new dialogue between Russia and the US and back from the Cold War to the peaceful existence of the two great powers?!" She then went on to write, "I am convinced that the basis of the dialogue should lie in the cooperation of ordinary citizens and their rights and interests, whether it be the right to arms for law-abiding citizens or the protection of a peaceful sky overhead."
No evidence has been found to show that Butina was acting on behalf of the Russian government. Butina’s plea deal says she was acting "as an agent of a foreign government official." The "foreign government official" is Torshin, who Butina says never directed her to do anything. Without Butina’s conviction and prison sentence, these NRA events her and Torshin attended would not seem remotely scandalous.
The minority report alleges that the NRA can lose its status as a tax-exempt organization since some members who went to Russia pursued business interests while they were there. The primary evidence used for this allegation was Pete Brownell’s participation in the trip. Brownell is the CEO of the firearms accessories company Brownell Inc. and served as the president of the NRA from 2017-2018.
Emails between Butina and Brownell do show that he arrived in Russia a few days earlier than the rest of the delegation to pursue personal business interests. But the evidence shows he was acting in a separate capacity while pursuing his interests. In an email from NRA supporter and GOP activist Paul Erickson to Brownell, Erickson said, "Should you arrive a few days ahead of the formal delegation, that is YOUR time to be spent on YOUR purposes with ZERO ‘official’ contacts – just an American businessman exploring business opportunities with companies unrelated to the diplomatic / good will tour that Ms. Butina has arranged."
Another allegation of the minority report is that the NRA may have violated US law by meeting with two sanctioned individuals in Russia. Brownell and other members of the NRA delegation met with two people who were on the Office of Foreign Assets Control’s (OFAC) list of Specially Designated Nationals (SDN). An email from an employee of Brownell shows they asked the OFAC if they can meet with the SDNs. The email concluded, "I think we’re on solid ground if the purpose of those SDN persons attending meetings is simply good will – i.e. the exchange of ideas is not between you and these individuals but rather between the NRA and The Right to Bear Arms group."
Page 16 of the minority reports says, "while the interactions between NRA officials and the identified SDNs raise serious concerns, it is not possible to determine with the information available whether the actions were inconsistent with US law."
The NRA has a history of working with gun rights groups in other countries like Canada, Brazil, and Australia. The minority report also mentions a trip to Israel the NRA delegation made before they traveled to Russia. Joe Gregory, a member of the NRA delegation to Israel and Russia, confirmed with the finance committee that the NRA regularly paid for his trips to Israel, where he holds "active interests." Gregory is a major donor to some charities in Israel, but the minority report does not look into Gregory’s interests in Israel at all. The glossing over of Gregory’s business in Israel and the focus on Brownell’s interests in Russia shows that this report is more about Russia than the NRA’s finances.
The Senate Finance Committee’s majority report refuted the minority’s claims. The majority concluded that "the report is littered with salacious, unsubstantiated accusations, and reads as if there were an elaborate conspiracy theory by members of the NRA to aid in the attempted Russian infiltration of conservative organizations and the Republican Party."
The NRA is a hugely influential lobby group in Republican and conservative circles in the US, with somewhere around five million members. The Senate Democrats who prepared the minority report are politically motivated to smear the NRA, and Russia is their new favorite way to do that. The presence of two Russians at NRA events around the 2016 election played no part in the election of Donald Trump. Butina is in jail for nothing more than failing to cut through some bureaucratic red tape. This Senate report is another dud in this seemingly never-ending Russiagate saga.
Dave DeCamp is assistant editor at Antiwar.com and a freelance journalist based in Brooklyn NY, focusing on US foreign policy and wars. He is on Twitter at @decampdave.