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Senate Report Reveals NRA Was 'Foreign Asset' To Russia Ahead of 2016


The National Rifle Association helped two Russian nationals ahead of the 2016 election to a far greater extent than was previously known. And the gun rights group may have acted in ways that could cost the organization its tax-exempt status. Those are two findings of a new Senate committee report that is out this morning. It says the NRA operated as a, quote, "foreign asset" for Russia during the 2016 campaign.

NPR's Tim Mak has been covering this closely. He has obtained a copy of the report and is in studio with us this morning. Hi, Tim.

TIM MAK, BYLINE: Hey there.

MARTIN: So we already knew about these two Russians who had sort of infiltrated the NRA for their own motives ahead of the 2016 election. But you're finding out now that the organization itself was more involved in this. What do we know?

MAK: So this report is the result of an 18-month investigation by Democrats on the Senate Finance Committee, and it focuses on two Russian nationals. Maria Butina - she's a convicted Russian agent now in federal prison. And Aleksandr Torshin - he's a former Russian government official who is now sanctioned by the United States.

So what did we learn about them? We learned that behind the scenes, in emails with NRA officials, that Butina and Torshin were open and explicit about their ties with the Russian government and with the Kremlin. But despite this knowledge being out there and circulated with NRA officials, the NRA facilitated and in some cases paid for their efforts to network with U.S. political groups. They connected them with various organizations in the United States.

When Maria Butina asked, hey, where - you know, what U.S. governors or lawmakers will be at this meeting, the NRA helped them figure out which politicians might be at a meeting that they wanted to attend, for example. So there was a sense, despite there being very explicit knowledge of Maria Butina and Aleksandr Torshin's ties with the Russian government, there was a sense in the NRA - we're happy to help them.

MARTIN: So I just want to underscore what you just said. You are saying that the NRA, officials within that organization, willingly aided Russians who were working to disrupt the 2016 election.

MAK: I don't think it's quite that clear. They didn't say, hey, we're Russians who are working to disrupt the 2016 election. But they did say, hey - it was very obvious that they were Russian nationals who had ties with the Kremlin. And that didn't seem to bother National Rifle Association officials at all. In fact, the NRA was willing to go out of their way to help kind of facilitate that.

MARTIN: Anything else notable in this report?

MAK: Well, it's interesting because while Maria Butina and Aleksandr Torshin were helped by the NRA in the United States, they also were reciprocal. That is that they helped organize an NRA delegation to Moscow and Russia. And that was done with the NRA's help and organization.

According to these - to this report and emails contemporaneous to that time, the NRA helped organize travel visas for an NRA delegation to go to Moscow - but not to kind of promote the NRA's stated mission, which is gun rights and gun policy, but for the personal commercial benefit of some of the members of that NRA delegation to Russia.

MARTIN: So what happens now? Are there legal implications here?

MAK: So the NRA already in a bunch of legal trouble. The New York state attorney general and the District of Columbia attorney general already have investigations into various other issues of NRA misconduct unrelated to Russia. So that's ongoing. And Senator Ron Wyden, who's behind this report, wants the IRS to open up a new probe based on these findings.

MARTIN: Is the NRA saying anything about this?

MAK: We haven't heard yet a response from the NRA, but I'm happy to update when we hear from them.

MARTIN: NPR's Tim Mak covering this story. Thank you so much.

MAK: Thanks a lot. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tim Mak is NPR's Washington Investigative Correspondent, focused on political enterprise journalism.