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Liberal Groups Seize On Report That NRA May Have Been Involved In Russian Meddling


Liberal activists are asking the Federal Election Commission to look into a connection between Russia and the National Rifle Association. This month, McClatchy reported that the FBI is investigating whether a Russian banker linked to the Kremlin illegally funneled money to the NRA to help the Trump presidential campaign.

NPR political reporter Tim Mak is following the story for us. Hi, Tim.

TIM MAK, BYLINE: Hey there.

SHAPIRO: Explain the connection between Russia and the National Rifle Association.

MAK: OK, so myself and other reporters have been reporting for well over a year about ties between the NRA and Russia. And that largely centers around a man named Alexander Torshin. He's a Russian central banker. He's got ties with the Kremlin. He's a lifetime member of the NRA. And he led a delegation of senior NRA leaders to Moscow in 2015. Now, he repeatedly made multiple attempts to set up a meeting with Donald Trump during the 2016 campaign. And he didn't accomplish this, but he did meet with Donald Trump Jr. during the NRA convention in 2016.

The latest revelation comes with a McClatchy report which NPR has not independently verified. But the report says that the FBI is investigating whether Russians used the NRA as a vehicle to aid Trump during the election.

SHAPIRO: How involved was the NRA in the 2016 election?

MAK: It was certainly more involved in 2016 than it has been in previous years. For example, it spent more than $30 million to support Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential race. Now, this is close to triple what they spent supporting Mitt Romney back in 2012.

SHAPIRO: And if there was a crime committed here, what would the crime have been?

MAK: So it's illegal for foreigners to actively participate in the American political process, whether that's through voting or through contributing money. So if Russians used the NRA as a vehicle to influence the American elections, that would be illegal.

SHAPIRO: Now, tell us about this latest complaint, today's filing with the Federal Election Commission.

MAK: So the FEC filing is a complaint by a liberal group led by a former spokesman for the Democratic National Committee. And they're basically saying based on this McClatchy report that the FBI is investigating the FEC should also open an investigation because they are concerned with campaign finance. They should investigate whether or not such illegal activities occurred.

SHAPIRO: What does the NRA say about all of this?

MAK: So it's said that so far it's not gotten any contact with the FBI. And it is worth noting that right now it's largely liberal groups that are seizing upon this moment. They're particularly interested in the fact that there are two villains in one prospective scandal, that there are anti-Trump groups, there are anti-NRA groups kind of banding together to try to draw attention to what could be a very interesting problem for the NRA.

SHAPIRO: This is one small slice of a much larger conversation about Russian involvement in the 2016 campaign. How does this fit into the bigger picture?

MAK: So Russian intervention in American politics, it's taken many forms, whether it's social media bots that are kind of confusing the process and spreading disinformation - and then there are reported efforts about Russians trying to connect with Trump's inner circle and getting involved with the campaign. So this avenue, this NRA-Russia avenue, could be a way in which the Russians sought to influence the process even though no public evidence has yet emerged that this was used. Now, Congressman Adam Schiff, he's the top Democrat on the House intelligence committee. He says it's an avenue that the investigation on the House intelligence committee has taken, but that Republicans aren't particularly eager to pursue it right now.

SHAPIRO: Is there anything likely to come of this latest complaint to the FEC?

MAK: So there's some reason for skepticism that the FEC would take any quick action. It's currently politically deadlocked. And even if it does move to investigate this promptly the matter itself, the process, could take years to actually occur. So in the meantime it's become kind of a vehicle for the left to draw attention to this matter.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Tim Mak. Thanks so much.

MAK: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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