Updated at 4:04 p.m. ET
The National Rifle Association acted as a "foreign asset" for Russia in the period leading up to the 2016 election, according to a new investigation unveiled Friday by Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore.
Drawing on contemporaneous emails and private interviews, an 18-month probe by the Senate Finance Committee's Democratic staff found that the NRA underwrote political access for Russian nationals Maria Butina and Alexander Torshin more than previously known — even though the two had declared their ties to the Kremlin.
Then-NRA vice president Pete Brownell, who would later become NRA president, was enticed to visit Russia with the promise of personal business opportunities — and the NRA covered a portion of the trip's costs.
The conclusions of the Senate investigation could have legal implications for the NRA, Wyden says.
Tax-exempt organizations are barred from using funds for the personal benefit of its officials or for actions significantly outside their stated missions. The revelations in the Senate report raise questions about whether the NRA could face civil penalties or lose its tax-exempt status.
The National Rifle Association called the report "politically motivated," and suggested that the 2015 Moscow trip was not an official NRA trip.
"An avalanche of proof confirms that the NRA, as an organization, was never involved in the activities about which the Democrats write," said William A. Brewer III, counsel to the NRA.
Continued Brewer: "This report goes to great lengths to try to involve the NRA in activities of private individuals and create the false impression that the NRA did not act appropriately. Nothing could be further from the truth."
Attorneys general in the state of New York and the District of Columbia are conducting separate probes into alleged wrongdoing at the gun rights organization. These probes have a broader scope than the Senate report, which focuses on Russia.
Majority response: This is overblown
The Republican majority on the Senate Finance Committee, which was consulted periodically throughout the Democrats' investigation, said Friday the report was overblown.
In the Republicans' analysis of Wyden's report, the majority argued that it does not account for U.S.-Russia relations at the time and contains "much conclusory innuendo... and repeatedly attempts to paint a picture that does not exist."
The Republicans also argued that if the NRA committed any infractions, they would be small and do not put the NRA's tax-exempt status at risk.
"To the extent NRA funds were used improperly in any facts discussed in the [Democratic report led by Wyden], it appears to have been minor, hardly a rounding error for an organization with hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue each year and nothing that cannot be corrected with minor intermediate sanctions," the Republican analysis states.
Kremlin links were clear
Wyden's 77-page report centers on Butina — a convicted Russian agent now in federal prison — and Torshin, a former Russian government official who has been sanctioned by the United States.
The report indicates that top NRA officials were aware of Butina's and Torshin's links with the Kremlin even as they sought to work more closely together under the banner of gun rights.
In an email later circulated to two senior NRA staff members, Butina wrote that a purpose of the 2015 Moscow trip was that "many powerful figures in the Kremlin are counting on Torshin to prove his American connections" by showing he could bring prominent NRA officials to Russia.
At another point, Butina suggested to participants on the 2015 NRA trip to Russia that she might be able to set up a meeting between them and President Vladimir Putin, referring to him as "Russia's highest leader."
NRA facilitated political access
Despite these declarations about their ties to the Russian government, NRA officials paid for and facilitated Torshin and Butina's introduction into American political organizations.
Butina and Torshin received access to Republican Party officials at NRA events.
It was a explicit interest expressed by Butina: In one 2015 email to an NRA employee, Butina wrote, "is there a list of U.S. governors or members of Congress that might be present at some time during the [NRA] annual meeting?"
The employee responded with a list.
The NRA also helped them forge connections with groups such as the Council for National Policy, the National Prayer Breakfast, the National Sporting Goods Wholesalers Association and Safari Club International.
"NRA resources appear to have been used to pay for membership and registration fees to third party events for [Torshin and Butina] as well as to arrange for transit to and lodging for many of those events throughout 2015 and 2016," the report states.
Report contradicts NRA denials
The Senate report notes that in 2018, then-NRA spokeswoman Dana Loesch repeatedly denied that the group leaders' 2015 trip to Moscow was sanctioned by the gun rights group.
But in a letter obtained by the committee, then-NRA President Allan Cors wrote to Torshin on NRA letterhead after consulting with NRA staff and former NRA President David Keene.
Cors designated two NRA figures to lead the trip: "Dave Keene and [top NRA donor] Joe Gregory will represent the NRA and our five million members better than anyone else," he wrote.
During the course of the investigation, Brownell's lawyer also told the committee that Brownell believed the trip was an official NRA event.
This view is further strengthened by the committee's evidence that NRA staff prepared itineraries, gathered briefing materials, applied for tourist visas, paid for some of the travel expenses, and provided the delegation with NRA gifts to give to Russian officials.
The gun rights group said on Friday afternoon that it was not an official NRA trip.
"Certain NRA members made the trip of their own accord. The record reflects it was not an official NRA trip," said Andrew Arulanandam, the NRA's managing director of public affairs. "NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre was opposed to it and, at his directive, no NRA staff members or employees attended."
The Senate investigation found evidence that the NRA tried to hide various payments related to the trip.
Brownell covered approximately $21,000 in expenses related to the trip; in June 2016, the NRA reimbursed Brownell just over $21,000.
After questions were raised about the trip in 2018, Brownell paid the NRA $17,000 — a transaction that Brownell's lawyer told the committee was requested by the NRA as a way of "getting the trip off the NRA's books."
NRA leaders sought business opportunities
The Senate investigation concludes that a number of NRA figures on the 2015 trip traveled to Russia "primarily or solely for the purpose of advancing personal business interests, rather than advancing the NRA's tax-exempt purpose."
Brownell, then a vice president of the NRA, is the CEO of a major firearms supplier bearing his last name.
In an email to a staffer at his business, Brownell described his trip as "an opportunity to be hosted in Russia to broaden our business opportunities ... to introduce our company to the governing individuals throughout Russia."
"The NRA directly facilitated Brownell's effort to travel to Moscow early to explore business opportunities with Russian weapons manufacturers," the report concludes.
Another member of the trip, NRA donor and then-Outdoor Channel CEO Jim Liberatore, told the Senate committee through his lawyer that his participation in the 2015 Moscow trip was "purely commercial."
Wyden seeks IRS probe
Wyden, the top Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee, said at the conclusion of his investigation that his staff had revealed information that shows that the National Rifle Association may have abused its tax-exempt status.
The next step, he says, is for the IRS to launch its own inquiry.
"The totality of evidence uncovered during my investigation, as well as the mounting evidence of rampant self-dealing, indicate the NRA may have violated tax laws," Wyden said. "The IRS needs to examine these findings and investigate other publicly reported incidents of potential lawbreaking."
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
A new report from Senate Democrats tells us more about the relationship between the National Rifle Association and Russia leading up to the 2016 elections. It says the NRA was, quote, "a foreign asset to Moscow." That conclusion raises questions about the organization's tax-exempt status. NPR's Tim Mak was one of the first to see this report. And he is here in the studio.
TIM MAK, BYLINE: Hey, there.
SHAPIRO: What does foreign asset mean in this context? What did the NRA do according to this report?
MAK: Well, according to this report, they facilitated access for two Russian nationals named Maria Butina and Alexander Torshin.
SHAPIRO: They've been in the news a lot. Maria Butina is currently in prison. Alexander Torshin was her boss. What did the NRA do?
MAK: What we're talking about here is taking a look at the mission of Maria Butina and Alexander Torshin. What were they trying to do in the United States? And they were trying to expand their influence at the behest of the Russian government. And how did the NRA play a role? They helped facilitate Maria Butina and Alexander Torshin's access to numerous events and organizations in the United States. They helped pay for their travel at times to some of these events and organizations. And they supported them by connecting them to various political figures throughout the country.
SHAPIRO: And key to this report is the assertion that the NRA knew at the time that Maria Butina and Alexander Torshin were working on behalf of the Kremlin.
MAK: Right. The report shows that Maria Butina and Alexander Torshin were not shy about saying that they had links with the Kremlin and that folks in the NRA were aware of this link and simply did not find that to be important.
SHAPIRO: One of the central events in this report is a trip to Moscow that some NRA officials took. Tell us about it.
MAK: Well, so there was this trip back in 2015. And the NRA has maintained for a very long time that this was not an NRA delegation, that it was just some NRA figures happened to go on this trip. But the interviews done by the committee show that the NRA was intimately involved in organizing the trip, preparing travel visas, preparing briefing documents.
SHAPIRO: So it wasn't just individuals. It was the organization.
MAK: The organization was part of the planning and execution of the trip from beginning to end.
SHAPIRO: Does that create legal problems for the National Rifle Association, which is a tax-exempt organization?
MAK: It may, especially since a lot of the folks who went on that trip to Russia, these emails show that a primary reason that they went was to benefit their own private businesses unrelated to the National Rifle Association.
SHAPIRO: How would that play out? Like, what would the process be?
MAK: The reason why it would be a threat to the National Rifle Association is that it is a tax-exempt organization. And tax-exempt organizations are not allowed to use their resources to the personal benefit of its officials. And it's not allowed to use its funds to do things well outside its stated goals. And it's not clear what a trip to Russia for the personal private business interests of NRA figures would have to do with the tax-exempt mission of the National Rifle Association.
SHAPIRO: This report was led by Democratic Senator Ron Wyden. It was written by the Democrats on the Senate Finance Committee. What are the Republicans saying?
MAK: Well, they think this is totally overblown, that Democrats on the committee have taken emails and interviews and made a much bigger deal of the facts than what the facts will ultimately allow in the big picture. And they also say that, you know, we're talking thousands of dollars here. And the National Rifle Association is an organization that takes in hundreds of millions of dollars every year in revenue, so this is a very small issue, and that the NRA's tax-exempt status is not at risk here because this is a small thing in a larger context.
SHAPIRO: Any response from the NRA today?
MAK: So the NRA has said that this is a politically motivated and contrived narrative, that this report today is being done to embarrass the National Rifle Association. William Brewer - he's the counsel to the NRA - he said that the report goes to great lengths to, quote, "try to involve the NRA in activities of private individuals and create the false impression that the NRA did not act appropriately. Nothing could be further from the truth." That's what the lawyer for the NRA said. And it's also worth noting that the NRA is continuing to insist, despite the evidence that the committee has put together, that the trip to Moscow was not an official NRA trip.
SHAPIRO: NPR's Tim Mak. Thank you.
MAK: Thanks a lot. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.