McClatchy: Did Russia launder money through the NRA for Trump election bid?

Just how far did Russia penetrate the American political system in 2016? Counterintelligence officials at the FBI suspect that a Russian banker might have used the National Rifle Association to fund efforts to get Donald Trump elected president, McClatchy reports this morning. The FBI has been probing the money trail of Alexander Torshin, already wanted by Spain for money laundering, and his activities with the NRA’s super-PAC:

The FBI is investigating whether a top Russian banker with ties to the Kremlin illegally funneled money to the National Rifle Association to help Donald Trump win the presidency, two sources familiar with the matter have told McClatchy.

FBI counterintelligence investigators have focused on the activities of Alexander Torshin, the deputy governor of Russia’s central bank who is known for his close relationships with both Russian President Vladimir Putin and the NRA, the sources said. …

Disclosure of the Torshin investigation signals a new dimension in the 18-month-old FBI probe of Russia’s interference. McClatchy reported a year ago that a multi-agency U.S. law enforcement and counterintelligence investigation into Russia’s intervention, begun even before the start of the 2016 general election campaign, initially included a focus on whether the Kremlin secretly helped fund efforts to boost Trump, but little has been said about that possibility in recent months.

However, McClatchy doesn’t actually have any evidence that Torshin sent funds to the NRA, or that the NRA had any idea of anything illegal going on:

The extent to which the FBI has evidence of money flowing from Torshin to the NRA, or of the NRA’s participation in the transfer of funds, could not be learned.

However, the NRA reported spending a record $55 million on the 2016 elections, including $30 million to support Trump – triple what the group devoted to backing Republican Mitt Romney in the 2012 presidential race. Most of that was money was spent by an arm of the NRA that is not required to disclose its donors.

While it did seem curious that the NRA went all in for Trump as early as they did, Trump had wrapped up the Republican nomination by that time and was the only vehicle for stopping Hillary Clinton. It’s also not terribly surprising that they had more resources for Trump, a populist in the mold of the NRA’s membership and donors, than for Romney, who didn’t really fit either. Super-PAC donations had begun skyrocketing across the board thanks in part to favorable court rulings, making it a much easier conduit for support by major donors. And, it must be said, an easier way for foreign money to penetrate — although it was already easy enough, as the 1996 Chinese penetration of the Bill Clinton/Al Gore campaign demonstrated.

Alexander Torshin appears to have had a lot less success at this than Charlie Trie, John Huang, and James Riady had. (Check the link and count their visits to the White House, for instance.) Torshin has a lifetime membership in the NRA, McClatchy reports, and he sat next to Donald Trump Jr at one event in May 2016, but otherwise, McClatchy doesn’t provide any other links between Torshin and Trump Sr, or the NRA campaign, or any links to the Trump White House at all. That’s not quite all there is to the Torshin story, though. Torshin, a political crony of Vladimir Putin, had tried to set up a meeting between Putin and the Republican presidential nominee, the New York Times reported last month:

Another contact came through an American advocate for Christian and veterans causes, and together, the outreach shows how, as Mr. Trump closed in on the nomination, Russians were using three foundational pillars of the Republican Party — guns, veterans and Christian conservatives — to try to make contact with his unorthodox campaign.

Both efforts, made within days of each other, centered on the N.R.A.’s annual meeting and appear to involve Alexander Torshin, a deputy governor of the Russian central bank and key figure in Mr. Putin’s United Russia party, who was instructed to make contact with the campaign.

“Putin is deadly serious about building a good relationship with Mr. Trump,” the N.R.A. member and conservative activist, Paul Erickson, wrote. “He wants to extend an invitation to Mr. Trump to visit him in the Kremlin before the election. Let’s talk through what has transpired and Senator Sessions’s advice on how to proceed.”

However, the end result of Torshin’s attempts was more or less zilch:

It is not clear how Mr. Dearborn handled the outreach. He forwarded a similar proposal, made through Rick Clay, an advocate for conservative Christian causes, to Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and a top campaign aide. Mr. Kushner rebuffed the proposal at the time, according to two people who have seen Mr. Kushner’s email. …

Mr. Torshin, he wrote, was planning to attend a reception being planned by Mr. Clay honoring wounded veterans that he expected Mr. Trump would also attend. Mr. Torshin expected to use the reception to “make ‘first contact’ ” with the candidate and present Mr. Trump’s wife, Melania, with a gift from the Russian Orthodox Church.

According to Mr. Clay, neither Mr. Trump nor his campaign officials attended the veterans’ dinner. The president’s son, Donald Trump Jr., and Mr. Torshin did attend a separate N.R.A. dinner that night.

Without knowing precisely what FBI counterintelligence agencies have, it’s tough to dismiss this entirely. However, the information that McClatchy’s sources leaked to them doesn’t sound like much, especially in relation to Trump or the campaign. It goes without saying that Trump and the campaign had nothing at all to do with the NRA’s operation of their political action committee, which makes this all but irrelevant to a “collusion” hypothesis.

The NRA might find the episode embarrassing, assuming there’s anything to this at all, but it has nothing to do with the Trump campaign, the RNC, or access to the president. In fact, the reporting on Torshin up to now seems to indicate that whatever money he may have spent turned out to be a waste. That may be why McClatchy describes this as an “FBI counterintelligence” probe rather than an effort directed by Robert Mueller. From the reports at McClatchy, Bloomberg, and the NYT, Torshin appears to be a malevolent figure whose operations in the US bear close scrutiny for counterintelligence purposes — but at least for now, Torshin appears to have little to do with the election or with any hint of collusion with Trump and his team.

Update: I left the word “launder” out of the headline. It’s back in now.