National Public Radio’s Tim Mak has been on the NRA-is-a-Russian-front beat for some time now. You may find a journalistic project predicated on a determined outcome a bit odd, but that’s how things seem to work these days.
The latest article in the series is headlined “NRA Was ‘Foreign Asset’ To Russia Ahead of 2016, New Senate Report Reveals,” and it reads like a partisan talking points memo, with not a single hint of skepticism to be found anywhere. The “report” itself, written by Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon, is larded with suspenseful prose that works to create the impression that completely legal and innocuous interactions are part of a nefarious plot. The only thing it “reveals” is that Senate Democrats have no qualms leveling tendentious claims and spreading conspiracy theories.
Wyden should have been asked two simple questions:
1: Where we can find evidence demonstrating that the National Rifle Association acted in the interests of the Russian government rather than the interests of its members or its core mission in defending gun rights? Surely a sitting senator wouldn’t accuse an advocacy group with millions of members of being a “foreign asset”—I mean, it’s right there on the cover!—without the presence of at least one corroborating piece of evidence. An email? A phone call? A witness?
2: Where in the report can we find evidence that backs up your long-held contention that Kremlin lackey Alexander Torshin or his sidekick Maria Butina—or anyone else, for that matter—“illegally funneled money to the National Rifle Association to help Donald Trump win the presidency” in 2016? Surely there’s a bank receipt or transaction record or a witness who supports this spectacular allegation? The FBI and former special counsel Robert Mueller, armed with subpoena powers and an unlimited scope, reportedly investigated the issue of Russian money and the NRA, and even they turned up nothing.
The answer is there is no such evidence. A full fisking of the document would be longer than the actual report. Although a reader really only needs to follow some of the footnotes to understand just how preposterous Wyden’s work really is. Take these two quick examples.
The Senate minority report claims that “public reporting throughout 2017 and 2018 characterized the NRA delegation’s December 2015 trip to Moscow as an NRA-authorized trip.” This is important for Wyden’s purposely convoluted narrative.
The footnote for this claim leads us to an article from the far-left Raw Story which, as it turns out, is just an aggregation of a speculative story in the liberal Daily Beast about how NRA and Russian officials met at a shooting competition. The Daily Beast article was written by Tim Mak, with information very likely provided him by Wyden.
So the meeting was “characterized” as official by “public reporting” because Senate Democrats characterized it that way.
In another section, the report states that Butina, the central player in Wyden’s tale, had been charged by the DOJ for trying to “gain access to American conservative organizations on behalf of the Russian Federation.”
Sounds pretty bad. When you follow the footnote, though, you find out that the DOJ press release doesn’t mention anything about “conservative” organizations or the NRA. Wyden uses “conservative” 19 times in a similar manner, although it appears zero times in the affidavit.
How do we know Butina and Torshin weren’t focusing solely on “conservative” organizations? Well, the duo met with all kinds of people in 2015, including Stanley Fischer, then Federal Reserve vice chairman, and Nathan Sheets, then Treasury undersecretary for international affairs in the Obama administration. (This tidbit is tucked into footnote 400 on page 73 of the 77-page report.)
Why on earth would two Obama nominees meet with a “convicted Russian agent now in federal prison” and a “sanctioned Russian oligarch”?
Events can really sound suspicious when you retroactively attach convictions onto characters in your stories from 2015. Yet Butina is cited 338 times in the report, and most often her involvement is framed as if everyone interacting with her should have known that she was a Russian superspy.
Then again, even her criminality is conveniently shaded, heavily leaning on early accusations rather than her actual conviction. While it’s true that Butina is now serving an 18-month prison term on a count of conspiracy, she was never convicted of espionage, or of bundling illegal funds, or of illegally gaining access to “conservative organizations,” or of violating Russian sanctions, or even of taking Russian funds to operate in the United States.
Federal prosecutors had initially accused Butina of using sex to gain influence—“Maria Butina, Suspected Secret Agent, Used Sex in Covert Plan,” read a titillating New York Times headline. They were forced to walk back that allegation, as well. As James Bamford noted in his excellent article in The New Republic:
The inquiry by the Senate Intelligence Committee and the FBI’s surprise raid on Butina’s apartment also failed to turn up anything incriminating. Years of physical surveillance, which, according to a knowledgeable source, included secretly following her to interviews, at a cost of perhaps $1 million or more, also came up empty.
Then again, even if Vlad Putin was signing Butina’s checks and personally instructing her to infiltrate the NRA for Donald Trump, nothing in the report shows that anyone at the NRA knew, or that anyone changed direction, or that any money was laundered, or even that anyone took Butina very seriously.
Wyden also wants you to believe Torshin anticipated Trump’s run for president, and so decided to become a lifetime member by openly supporting the organization back in 2012, paying no more than his minimal dues for years while patiently waiting to infiltrate the United States government.
Now, NRA officials were clearly interested in having better ties with a Russian pro-gun groups (and I’m highly suspicious of the idea that Putin is interested in the masses owning firearms.) Maybe it was a bad idea. But before the Russia paranoia broke after Trump’s win in 2016, it certainly wasn’t a big deal.
What’s clear from the report is that Wyden’s real goal is to strip the NRA of not-for-profit status, hampering its ability to effectively lobby on gun policy. The only marginally new information the report digs up are some emails from NRA staff helping officials with visas, itineraries, and personal business during their trip to a Moscow pro-gun event. It is illegal for tax-exempt organizations to use funds for the personal benefit of its officials “significantly” outside their stated missions.
What NRA officials may have done—although the evidence is murky, at best—might be enough for a fine. Moreover, there probably isn’t a single tax-exempt organization in America whose support staff has not helped its leadership in some small personal capacity. Hardly the stuff of “foreign assets.” But if that’s the new standard we’re holding advocacy groups to, count me in.
Of course, no sane person believes that Wyden takes umbrage with the NRA for failing to single-mindedly “advance the NRA’s tax-exempt purpose.” The very reason Wyden is trying to smear the NRA is because they advance gun rights.
Perhaps one day we’re going to learn that Wayne Lapierre has a big red phone on his desk that is a direct line to Kremlin and open line of credit for unlimited Rubles. Though there is this wacky competing theory that the NRA supported Trump in 2016 because he was the pro-gun rights candidate, and Hillary Clinton, his opponent, was the anti-gun rights candidate, who when asked which “enemy” she was most proud of, named the gun rights organization.
What I do know is that most people who conduct a year-long investigation that produces no corroboration for their explosive claims would move on. If you’re a Washington Democrat, though, a lack of evidence only tells you it’s time to double down with more hyperbolic claims. Because you know well that most media outlets will pass on your rank speculation without any skepticism.