Senate Democrats say top NRA officials knew about Kremlin ties

A new report by Democrats on the Senate Finance Committee alleges that the National Rifle Association (NRA) "became a foreign asset" for Russia ahead of the 2016 election.

The document published Friday says that the NRA and its officers, board members and donors "engaged in a years-long effort to facilitate the U.S.-based activities of Maria ButinaMaria ButinaTreasury adviser pleads guilty to making unauthorized disclosures in case involving Manafort Recently jailed Maria Butina rewarded with new show on Russia Today Russia offers Maria Butina a job at human rights commission MORE and Alexander Torshin," despite being aware of the two Russian nationals' ties to the Kremlin.

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"The scope of the NRA’s support for these Russian activities raises concerns about whether the activity in which the NRA, its officers and board members engaged were in furtherance of the organization’s exempt purpose," it said. 

Last year, Butina pleaded guilty to acting as an unregistered foreign agent on behalf of the Russian government.

Torshin is a Russian banker and former politician. 

The report cited a series of emails between NRA officials and and interviews conducted during the 18-month investigation. 

One 2015 email seen by NRA executives said "Many powerful figures in the Kremlin are counting on Torshin to prove his American connections–a last minute important member cancellation could affect his political future." 

The Senate Democrats also found that over a years-long period, "NRA officers and board members directed organization resources toward facilitating the activities of Butina and Torshin in the United States."

The report also raised questions about an NRA delegation's travel to Moscow in December 2015. 

"The NRA initially reimbursed some trip expenses," it said. "In 2018, after Senator Wyden first asked the NRA about its relationship to Torshin, the organization sought reimbursement ... to get trip expense payments 'off the NRA’s books.' "

NRA spokesman Andrew Arulanandam said in a statement to The Hill that the trip was not an official organization excursion. 

“Certain NRA members made the trip of their own accord. The record reflects it was not an official NRA trip,"Arulanandam said. "NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre was opposed to it and, at his directive, no NRA staff members or employees attended.”

Democrats said that the report shows wrongdoing by the gun rights organization. 

“During the 2016 election, Russian nationals effectively used the promise of lucrative personal business opportunities to capture the NRA and gain access to the American political system,” Sen. Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenFrustration builds as negotiators struggle to reach COVID-19 deal On The Money: Unemployment benefits to expire as coronavirus talks deadlock | Meadows, Pelosi trade criticism on stalled stimulus talks | Coronavirus recession hits Social Security, Medicare, highway funding Unemployment benefits to expire as coronavirus talks deadlock MORE (Ore.), the top Democrat on the Financial Services Committee said in a statement. “The totality of evidence uncovered during my investigation, as well as the mounting evidence of rampant self-dealing, indicate the NRA may have violated tax laws. This report lays out in significant detail that the NRA lied about the 2015 delegation trip to Moscow." 

"The report from the Senate Finance Committee shows the NRA has been engaged in business activities and self-dealing that likely violate nonprofit rules under the tax code. The NRA has abused its tax-exempt status and essentially become a business enterprise that its board members and leadership use for lucrative personal business opportunities, including in Moscow," said Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) in a statement. "As the disturbing truth continues to surface, the NRA’s status as a tax exempt entity needs to be thoroughly investigated.”

Republicans on the Financial Services Committee published a rebuttal report on Friday that found "no wrongdoing by the NRA or its officials that would reasonably call into question the NRA’s tax-exempt status, based on the documents provided to the Committee."

“The Minority report reads more like a political document directed at an organization well known in U.S. politics to be despised by Democrats because of its advocacy for Second Amendment rights," it said. 

The Republicans said that the Democratic report's conclusion that NRA members' travel raised concerns is "meritless."

"Accordingly, it is not fair to question the tax-exempt status of an organization associated with such individuals because of that travel," the report said.

William A. Brewer, an attorney representing the NRA, III similarly decried the report as politically motivated in a statement. 

"An avalanche of proof confirms that the NRA, as an organization, was never involved in the activities about which the Democrats write,” Brewer said. “This report goes to great lengths to try to involve the NRA in activities of private individuals and create the false impression that the NRA did not act appropriately. Nothing could be further from the truth.”

The NRA in recent months has undergone a leadership shakeup, with multiple board members and executives stepping down. It is also being investigated by New York's attorney general based on its tax-exempt status

—Updated at 3:24 p.m.