For years, the NRA has been snuggly with Russia, pushing policy that supports the easy export of weapons and supporting “gun-rights groups” within Russia that NRA officials were well aware had no existence outside of propaganda. And there was money. The NRA has admitted to receiving small amounts of cash in the form of dues from Russian members. It hasn’t illuminated the sudden influx of untagged funds that almost, just by coincidence, exactly matched the record $30 million that the group plowed into Donald Trump’s campaign in 2016.
In the past, NRA officials didn’t exactly hide their love of all things Moscow. Not only did NRA representatives make multiple pilgrimages to the authoritarian homeland, and frequently snap publicity shots with oligarchs, Russian soldiers, and Kremlin insiders, but the organization also pushed a kind of “brutalist cool,” reflecting a presentation that valued a robust use of violence rather than wimpy old democratic debate. It’s railed against bills that would have restricted imports of semiautomatic weapons made in Russia.
But now that Maria Butina is the new orange, the “Right to Bear Arms” group that she and Vladimir Putin associate Aleksandr Torshin claimed to represent has been publicly revealed as a cover story, and federal investigators really seem to mean it when it comes to looking at connections between the NRA and its Russian pals … Moscow has suddenly become off limits for the NRA. As the New York Times reports, the NRA is now claiming it never supported the Russia trips to begin with, even those taken by their own officials and big-name donors. And it’s maintaining that, even though the most-publicized journey was organized by a former NRA president, those who went along did so against the orders of perennial great leader Wayne LaPierre. This supposed opposition from the man who at that time helmed the NRA somehow did not stop officials from going or stop the NRA from celebrating their trip. Which seems both unlikely and … weak.
But while the NRA’s public trips to Russia are just that—public—it’s those private monetary transactions that are really drawing investigators’ attention. The NRA has “turned over thousands of pages” in response to requests from Senate committees. Which might sound impressive. But those pages don’t include the ones the Senate wants: the list of donors behind the slug of cash injected into the NRA’s 2016 campaign.
The NRA has continued to claim that only a tiny amount of money—$2,500—came from Russia. However, its refusal to disclose the actual source of cash has limited any faith in that statement. The NRA could be standing in front of money that reached its coffers through some form of money-laundering scheme, like those that have already been revealed by the investigation of special counsel Robert Mueller, or they may be simply hiding a check straight from the Kremlin. It’s impossible to tell, because the NRA is crouching behind its status as a supposedly nonprofit organization to avoid reporting where it got the money to be the single largest outside contributor to the 2016 election.
“The N.R.A. should provide the financial documents and other records necessary to explain the scope of their activities,” Senator Ron Wyden, Democrat of Oregon and the committee’s ranking member, said in a statement. “The prospect of N.R.A. or N.R.A. officials abusing nonprofit status to work with a hostile regime and undermine our democracy is central to my investigation.”
Despite all the hiding, those records may not remain hidden. Federal investigators may seek to obtain the NRA’s tax records, which legally have to include those sources. In fact, those records may already be in the hands of both the special counsel and federal attorneys.
The Senate is continuing in its efforts to get NRA records, and with Democrats reviving the 2016 investigation in the House, the subpoenas are likely to lay heavily on the NRA’s doorstep.
With thier finances under scrutiny, the NRA has made a claim that it essentially has no finances. The organization has put members on notice that the coffers are bare and it’s skating close to disaster. The dire warnings may be nothing more than the latest fundraising move, but in the 2018 election the NRA was actually outspent by gun safety groups — which somewhat defangs the group’s political power.
At the same time, as the Wall Street Journal reports, the most radical gun owners, a faction the NRA has fed and nurtured for years, have increasingly peeled away from the organization, upset that they’re not a behaving as militant as their propaganda videos pretend. Rival groups with even more violent and fringe positions are gobbling up the camo-clad extremists who were often the NRA’s biggest supporters.