Democrats on the Senate Finance Committee have released a report that sheds new light on efforts by the Russian government to forge bonds with the NRA in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election, including previously unreported meetings between the former Russian ambassador and NRA leaders.
The 76-page report, titled “The NRA and Russia: How a Tax-Exempt Organization Became a Foreign Asset” and released Friday, relies heavily on internal NRA documents obtained by Democratic committee investigators during their nearly two-year probe to reach its conclusions. The Senate Finance Committee oversees tax policy and related issues, including tax-exempt groups like the NRA.
NRA emails and a calendar entry suggest that in November 2015 — one month before a delegation of NRA officials and supporters traveled to Moscow to meet with Russian oligarchs and high-level government officials — then–NRA president Allan Cors went hunting with then–Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak. Former NRA president David Keene had suggested months earlier that Cors invite the ambassador to the “Grand National Waterfowl Hunt” in Maryland, a suggestion Cors responded to enthusiastically. “Dave: I was at the hunt many years ago. A great event. I concur with all of your ideas/suggestions and would welcome any opportunity engage the ambassador with the NRA,” Cors said. An assistant to Cors later scheduled a “Hunt with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak.”
By the time the hunt occurred, Kislyak had already met with Cors and Keene at NRA headquarters in Virginia, according to the report. The trio was scheduled to have lunch in May 2016 at the ambassador’s Washington, DC, residence as well, according to calendar entries the NRA provided to the committee. Kislyak became a focal point early in special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian election interference because of his contacts with members of then-candidate Donald Trump’s inner circle. The Senate report says Kislyak waged an “influence campaign to associate with NRA leadership” and that Cors “welcomed” it.
Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden, the top Democrat on the Finance Committee, opened the investigation in early 2018, following news reports that detailed connections between the NRA and Russia. Four months later, the Justice Department revealed that it believed the Russians had sought to infiltrate an American “gun rights organization,” widely understood to be the NRA, when the department charged Maria Butina with failing to register as a foreign agent. Butina — a Russian gun-rights activist who worked closely with Alexander Torshin, a senior official at the Russian central bank — pleaded guilty in April 2019 and is serving an 18-month prison sentence with credit for time already served.
Cors, the NRA president at the time of the trip to Moscow, was originally planning to attend the trip, but pulled out, telling Torshin in November 2015: “I am particularly disappointed at being forced to cancel my visit to Moscow because of the importance of the relationship I feel we have developed through you with the Russian firearms and hunting communities.”
Cors’ cancellation prompted an email from Keene’s wife Donna pleading with him to change his mind. “Your canceling will risk–I think completely burn–all the inroads NRA volunteers have worked on so hard for so long. It will hurt Torchin’s [sic] pro-American career [...] David and I did no NRA international travel when he was an officer–but this is NRA business– we’ve worked for 7 years to build trust with the Russians. They are status-conscious and have spent untold hours and dollars on us. Allan, please, please come.”
Andrew Arulanandam, NRA managing director of public affairs, said in a statement that “Certain NRA members made the trip of their own accord. The record reflects it was not an official NRA trip."
Wyden said in a statement Friday that during the election, “Russian nationals effectively used the promise of lucrative personal business opportunities to capture the NRA and gain access to the American political system.” Wyden said his investigation, “as well as the mounting evidence of rampant self-dealing, indicate the NRA may have violated tax laws.”
In particular, Wyden pointed to the December 2015 trip to Moscow as evidence that the NRA might have broken the law. “This report lays out in significant detail that the NRA lied about the 2015 delegation trip to Moscow,” Wyden said. “This was an official trip undertaken so NRA insiders could get rich—a clear violation of the principle that tax-exempt resources should not be used for personal benefit.”
The report claims that the NRA, which has sought to distance itself from Russia in the last year, was more involved in the trip, sponsored by Butina’s gun-rights group, than previously acknowledged. “The NRA trip was planned as a delegation of the NRA’s most senior officers and donors, including, initially, then-President Cors and his spouse,” the report says. “Russian organizers made clear the trip was planned to bring the ‘head of the most powerful political organization in America’ to Moscow and that the delegation needed to include senior NRA leadership or the trip would not take place. Trip participants relied on NRA professional staff, funding and resources to execute their travel.”
However, a report issued by Republicans on the Senate Finance Committee — led by Chair Chuck Grassley — took issue with Wyden’s claim that the NRA might have broken the law, arguing that “there is nothing wrong with taking a trip with two purposes in mind, even if one of those purposes involves a tax-exempt organization.”
The Democratic report makes several recommendations for congressional action in response to the findings, including changing the laws around tax-exempt groups to “protect against foreign threats.”