Did the Kremlin funnel money to the NRA to help Trump? It's bizarre, but conceivable

Right-wing zealots have massive man-crushes on Putin's Russia, so the allegation is more disturbing than surprising

Published January 19, 2018 8:00AM (EST)

 (Getty/Alex Wong/Shutterstock/Salon)
(Getty/Alex Wong/Shutterstock/Salon)

By December of 2015 it was obvious that presidential candidate Donald Trump, whom most people still considered just an entertaining gadfly, had a very friendly attitude toward Russian president Vladimir Putin. Trump complimented Putin for his strength and his leadership, which he often contrasted with Barack Obama's. He denied reports that Putin had critical journalists killed, defending his admiration for the man by simply saying “I think that my words represent toughness and strength."

wrote about it for Salon at the time, pointing out that while Trump seemed out of step with what most of us thought was the standard GOP position on the Russian leader, Putin-philia was a phenomenon among a certain sub-set of right wingers. Marie Cogan of the National Journal had chronicled the "Secret American Subculture of Putin-Worshippers" back in 2013, profiling conservatives who saw the Russian president much as Trump did: a manly contrast to the feminine, weak (and black) American president. When the shirtless Putin was pictured allegedly catching a 46-pound pike, posters on Free Republic swooned with envy:

“I wonder what photoup [sic] of his vacation will the Usurp­er show us? Maybe clip­ping his fin­ger­nails I sup­pose or maybe hanging some cur­tains. Yep manly.”

As it turns out it wasn't just those who hated Obama for being a "metrosexual." Other factions of the conservative movement had taken a liking to the Russian government and its right wing policies. Ed Kilgore at New York magazine noted back in 2016 that some Christian conservatives liked Putin, naming Franklin Graham, National Organization for Marriage leader Brian Brown, and American Family Association spokesperson Bryan Fischer among the leaders who appreciate Putin's Islamophobia and hostility to gay rights.

White supremacists have been connecting with like minded white nationalists in Russia for some time. All the top American neo-Nazis from Matthew Heimbach to Richard Spencer have spent time in Russia and extol the virtues of its white homogeneity. None other than former KKK Imperial Wizard David Duke has spent considerable time there. Duke has said that Russia is the “key to white survival."

Since so much of the hardcore right that supports Donald Trump is also very friendly toward Putin it should come as no surprise that gun rights zealots are equally enamored of the macho, white nationalist Russian leader. He is their kind of guy. And they are Russia's kind of guys too.

The Washington Post reported last spring about the remarkable outreach to American right-wing activists by a man named Alexander Torshin, a Russian banker and purportedly close Putin ally who is suspected of international money laundering by the Spanish government. One of the Americans with whom he connected was a Nashville lawyer named G. Kline Preston IV, who had longtime business interests in Russia.

Preston introduced Torshin to David Keane, former head of the NRA and president of the American Conservative Union. With a partner named Maria Butina, they began a Russian gun owners organization which sponsored events and competitions, to which prominent American gun activists were invited.

Last July Richard Engel, NBC News' chief foreign correspondent, and NBC's Kelly Cobiella broadcast a program called Guns, God and Russia in which they interviewed Preston and he made a revealing comment about why he and the far right are so enamored with Russia:

We're very similar people. In fact, you could take many Russians and put 'em in a room with people who are from Nashville, Tennessee and everybody kind of looks the same.

The white people anyway.

It was a bit surprising when the NRA enthusiastically endorsed Trump earlier than usual in the process. He wasn't a member, didn't hunt and hadn't been in the military. He did talk tough on the campaign trail about gun rights and he spoke out both in favor of "law and order" and vigilantism, which isn't something you see every day. The gun lobby backed Trump early and strong, and when he won they took credit, especially for the ad buys in the states that made the difference in the Electoral College win. The NRA massively outspent their previous election record, using a division that is not required to disclose its donors.

According to the Center for Public Integrity just before the election:

In October [2016] alone, about one of every 20 TV ads in Pennsylvania has been sponsored by the NRA ... and in Ohio, the organization is responsible for about one of every eight TV ads that have aired so far in October.

They also financed a sophisticated and expensive ground operation in the states Trump won with a razor-thin margin. NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre had good reason to take credit for Trump's upset.

Evidently, there have been suspicions among the Washington press for over a year that the NRA had received a bundle of Russian cash and on Thursday, Peter Stone and Greg Gordon of McClatchy reported that the FBI is investigating whether the aforementioned Alexander Torshin may have funneled Russian government funds to his friends in the NRA to help elect Trump.

The House and Senate investigations have also been on the trail of the Torshin-Butina-NRA connections. They have also followed up on clues in the Russia probe that touch on Russophile Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., Trump foreign policy aides J.D. Gordon and Sam Clovis, and conservative activist Paul Erickson, who reportedly tried to set up meetings among the various players, including Trump. In fact, Erickson and Butina are partners in a shadowy business whose purposes and activities are unclear.

It's unclear where all this may lead, but if it is true that Russian money was used to help finance the NRA's ad campaign, somebody's got some explaining to do. All these right-wingers may love Vladimir Putin's policies against gays and Muslims, appreciate his manly physique and endorsement of gun violence and mayhem. Perhaps they look forward to a friendly white nationalist alliance to keep all the "shithole countries" in their places. But that desire wouldn't excuse election interference or accepting foreign money to help finance an election campaign. If the Mueller investigation has the NRA in its crosshairs, that fate cold not have found a more deserving target.

By Heather Digby Parton

Heather Digby Parton, also known as "Digby," is a contributing writer to Salon. She was the winner of the 2014 Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism.

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