STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Just how deep are the ties between Russia and the National Rifle Association? The story of one Russian official offers some insight. His name is Alexander Torshin. Back in 2015, an NRA delegation traveled to Moscow and met him. Now NPR is reporting that his ties to the National Rifle Association go back years. He talked about the NRA regularly on social media, in Russian tweets that went unnoticed until NPR political reporter Tim Mak noticed them. And he’s in our studios. Good morning, sir.
TIM MAK, BYLINE: Hey. Good morning.
INSKEEP: Who is Torshin?
MAK: So Alexander Torshin – he’s a former Russian senator. He serves as a deputy governor to the Bank of Russia. He’s known to be a Putin ally. And when he was in the Russian Duma, he spent time on Russia’s National Anti-Terrorism Committee. That’s a powerful state body that includes the director of the FSB, which is Russia’s internal security service, and the ministers of defense and foreign affairs. So I previously reported that he was a – and is – a paid lifetime member of the NRA. And over six years, he developed ties with leaders of the NRA and used them to get deeper into American politics. And we can see this because he documented all these efforts in real time. It was actually hiding in plain sight among 150,000 Russian-language tweets that NPR has translated.
INSKEEP: That’s why people hadn’t noticed it until now. They hadn’t gone to the trouble of translating it. Hadn’t – people didn’t notice it in the United States, anyway. So what was he doing at NRA conventions, in his own words?
MAK: So he went to every NRA convention between 2012 and 2016. We hadn’t known that he was going every single year. Over this time, he met with everyone who was a president at the NRA during this time.
INSKEEP: President of the NRA you’re talking about.
MAK: Sorry, yes. President of the NRA. And he met with four presidents of the NRA during this time. He appears to have developed a pretty close relationship with David Keene, who is a former NRA president and the former president of the American Conservative Union. He even says that he met Donald Trump through the NRA at their convention in 2015. Now, the White House has previously denied this, but they didn’t respond to NPR’s request for comment on this story.
INSKEEP: Is there any description of that meeting with President Trump? Because I could imagine sitting in a private room, talking with someone. Or I could imagine being one of a thousand people who shakes Donald Trump’s hand or tries to shake his hand.
MAK: Yeah. So the context of this is that Alexander Torshin was defending Donald Trump over the course of the later presidential campaign. And Torshin said, look. I know Donald Trump through the NRA. This is what he writes in Russian. I know Donald Trump through the NRA. He’s a decent man.
INSKEEP: So he suggested himself that he had some kind of personal relationship with Trump. Now, you’re reporting that he goes to the NRA. He’s a lifetime member of the NRA, goes to these conventions. He talks about it regularly on social media. Is it possible that he was just a big fan of the United States Constitution’s Second Amendment?
MAK: It is possible, but there is the added interest of investigative bodies. And McClatchy reported last month that the FBI is investigating whether or not Alexander Torshin illegally directed any sort of money towards the NRA in order to help Donald Trump in the 2016 election.
INSKEEP: Oh. So perhaps what we’re learning here, Tim Mak, is one of the reasons that he might be a person of interest to federal investigators because there is this public trail of his public interest and his public participation in the NRA. And that might lead to questions about whether there was something else going on a little more privately.
MAK: Yeah. And members of both the House and Senate intelligence committees have said, hey, we want to get to the bottom of this particular question. And the Torshin element of it – the connections that we see in open source, public information raises a lot of eyebrows amongst investigators.
INSKEEP: What do you make of the fact that this gentleman spent a bunch of time inside this organization that would cast itself as hyperpatriotic? And he’s an official of Russia, a country that has not been very friendly with the United States. And he tweets at one point, I haven’t heard one negative word about Russia in all my time in the United States.
MAK: Well, you know, it’s interesting. He has spent many years traveling to the United States, has developed quite an affinity both kind of personally as as a – you know, he’s someone who really seems to enjoy guns. He spent many years traveling back and forth between Russia and the United States. One interesting anecdote is that in 2012, during the presidential election – you’ll remember between Mitt Romney and President Obama – he traveled to the United States to Tennessee as an international election observer. So the United States sends observers abroad to watch their elections. And sometimes, foreigners send observers to watch American elections. But typically, it’s not top Russian officials.
INSKEEP: So he’s, like, hanging out at a polling place or something like that.
MAK: That’s right. He stood in line. He took a picture of himself and put it on Twitter, said that he was standing outside a polling place in Tennessee. And very interestingly, he writes that the NRA – his membership in the NRA – was what helped facilitate his becoming an international election observer in the United States.
INSKEEP: So we have a picture of an ally of Vladimir Putin wanting to get really, really knowledgeable about American politics. Is that the bottom line of what your reporting reveals here?
MAK: I think the entirety of what I’m reporting here is this longtime effort to cultivate NRA ties and to leverage that to get deeper understanding, better connections, meetings in American politics.
INSKEEP: Tim, thanks very much for the reporting. Really appreciate it.
MAK: Thank you.
INSKEEP: That’s NPR’s Tim Mak.