Updated at 10:25 p.m. ET
A prominent Kremlin-linked Russian politician has methodically cultivated ties with leaders of the National Rifle Association, and documented efforts in real time over six years to leverage those connections and gain access deeper into American politics, NPR has learned.
Russian politician Alexander Torshin claimed his ties to the National Rifle Association provided him access to Donald Trump — and the opportunity to serve as a foreign election observer in the United States during the 2012 election.
Torshin is a prolific Twitter user, logging nearly 150,000 tweets, mostly in Russian, since his account was created in 2011. Previously obscured by language and by sheer volume of tweets, Torshin has written numerous times about his connections with the NRA, of which he’s a known paid lifetime member. NPR has translated a selection of those posts that document Torshin’s relationship to the group.
These revelations come amid news that the FBI is investigating whether Torshin, the deputy governor of the Bank of Russia, illegally funneled money to the National Rifle Association to assist the Trump campaign in 2016, McClatchy reported in January.
In a letter to Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., a member of the Senate intelligence committee, the NRA denied any wrongdoing and suggested the FBI is investigating Torshin, not the NRA. Neither the NRA nor Torshin responded to inquiries from NPR.
Investigations by Congress and the Department of Justice have revealed that the Russian government has sought to sharpen political divisions among American citizens by amplifying controversial social issues. Investigators have expressed concern about Russian links to the NRA, one of the most politically polarizing organizations in the U.S.
Torshin is a former Russian senator and served as the deputy speaker of Russia’s parliament for more than a decade. Known as a Putin ally, he also spent time on Russia’s National Anti-Terrorism Committee, a state body that includes the director of Russia’s internal security service and the ministers of defense, interior and foreign affairs.
Translation of November 2016 tweet: “For 15 years, I’ve traveled to the US with official delegations, and more often – privately. In this time, I NEVER HEARD ONE BAD WORD ABOUT RUSSIA!”
Torshin’s use of NRA connections to open doors, and his 2015 claim to know Trump through the organization, raise new questions about the group’s connections with Russian officials — at a time when the organization is being roundly criticized by its opponents, and at times the president himself, for opposition to gun control.
The president has also defended the group in recent days as the gun debate has reemerged in the wake of a Florida school shooting, including a tweet calling the group’s leaders “Great American Patriots.”
The NRA has been a key part of Trump’s conservative base. After a meeting with lawmakers in which Trump angered many conservatives for entertaining proposals for gun control, the president tweeted that he had another meeting with NRA leaders in the Oval Office on Thursday night.
On his verified Twitter account, Torshin talked about how he knew Donald Trump through the NRA, citing a connection at the group’s 2015 convention. Responding to a tweet about comedian Larry David accusing Trump of being a racist, Torshin said he knew the businessman through the NRA, and defended him.
Комик Ларри Дэвид прервал кандидата в президенты США Дональда Трампа в эфире шоу на NBC выкриком “Трамп –ты расист!” http://echo.msk.ru/news/1654486-echo.html …
Translation of November 2015 tweet: “A comedian should make people laugh! Right? So he is trying! I know D. Trump (through NRA). A decent person.”
“I saw him in Nashville” in April 2015, Torshin added later, the date and site of the NRA’s 2015 convention. Trump gave a speech at that convention, the outlines of which would become familiar as his stump speech throughout the 2016 presidential campaign. The White House did not respond to repeated requests for comment by NPR, but denied Trump has ever met Torshin to Bloomberg News in 2017.
Among his tens of thousands of tweets, Torshin also documented his attendance at every NRA convention between 2012 and 2016, only some of which have been previously reported.
Torshin’s attendance at the NRA convention in 2016 is where he reportedly met with Donald Trump, Jr.
Torshin had made repeated attempts to meet with Donald Trump himself at that convention during the presidential election year, but there is no evidence of this occurring. A conservative activist with ties to Torshin aide Maria Butina reached out to the Trump campaign in 2016, saying that Russia was “quietly but actively seeking a dialogue with the U.S.” and would try to use the NRA convention to make “first contact,” the New York Timesreported.
“Putin is deadly serious about building a good relationship with Mr. Trump,” the activist, Paul Erickson wrote. “He wants to extend an invitation to Mr. Trump to visit him in the Kremlin before the election.” Erickson has business ties to Butina, having started an LLC with her in South Dakota.
Torshin has used his repeated trips to NRA conventions to cultivate relationships with top NRA officials. And his Twitter account documents that he has personally met with every person who has been president of the NRA since 2012.
On Twitter, Torshin portrayed these meetings as more than merely casual encounters. In 2017, he tweeted that he was bringing a gift to then-NRA President Allan Cors, and suggested he was familiar with Cors’ hobbies.