- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 6, 2018

DALLAS — The National Rifle Association is increasingly factoring into anti-Trump lawmakers’ and groups’ theories of collusion during the 2016 campaign — but activists at the NRA’s convention last week shrugged off the accusations as another part of Democrats’ “witch hunt.”

Some NRA members said they hadn’t heard the accusations, while others said they were disappointed but not surprised that their political opponents were targeting them rather than 2016 Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton with questions about Russian activities surrounding the election.

“To me, it sounds like they went after this witch hunt for Donald Trump, there’s nothing to it, and they thought, ‘Hey, Russia, that seems like a story that takes off, so let’s see if we can smear the NRA with it as well,’” said Blake Kennedy, 56, an information technology architect from Seattle.

The accusations have been swirling for several months, driven in particular by Sen. Ron Wyden, Oregon Democrat, and several high-profile gun control groups that suggest in thinly veiled language that Russian operatives siphoned money into the U.S. election through the NRA, which was a major backer of Mr. Trump.

They point to Alexsandr Torshin, a banker with close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is a nonvoting member of the NRA.

The Federal Election Commission has taken up the inquiry, and the FBI is also investigating, according to a report by the McClatchy news service.

“The NRA can’t keep its story straight on Russian money or its ties to Russia,” Everytown for Gun Safety said in a memo ahead of the NRA convention.

The memo said the questions have begun to dent the gun rights organization’s credibility.

Everytown had a truck circle the convention hall with a billboard message asking “How much money have you taken from Russia?” along with images of Mr. Putin and Wayne LaPierre, executive vice president and CEO of the NRA.

NRA activists laughed that off, and Ricky Bullon, 65, called it “stupid.”

“I don’t think NRA has anything to do with Russia,” said Mr. Bullon, who is from Weatherford, just west of Dallas. “They funneled money to Hillary Clinton — they can prove that.”

Dawn Price, 46, from near Athens, southeast of Dallas, said she wasn’t concerned and that the NRA-Russia issue is liable to either get lost in the flood of news Mr. Trump generates or be too confusing for people to seriously track.

“Whatever’s going to happen with it’s going to happen with it,” she said. “I don’t know what the reality of the situation was, but I don’t care.”

Rose Wilson, 69, of Pennsylvania, called the NRA-Russia connection “another lie.”

“They should check the ties with the Clinton Foundation, Hillary Clinton, with Russia — let’s try that, you know? The uranium deal,” she said.

The NRA, in response to Mr. Wyden’s consistent prodding, has acknowledged that it accepted about $2,500 from people with Russian addresses, some of whom may be American nationals living abroad, or from known Russian nationals living in the U.S.

Most of that money was from membership dues or magazine subscriptions, which is legal, general counsel John C. Frazer wrote to Mr. Wyden. Only about $525, from two people, in contributions to the gun rights group came from Russian addresses.

The NRA was Mr. Trump’s biggest outside financial backer in 2016, spending more than $30 million to boost his campaign.

Foreign contributions to U.S. presidential campaigns are illegal. Mr. Frazer said in one response to Mr. Wyden that a review of their records “has found no foreign donations in connection with a United States election, either directly or through a conduit.”

Democrats on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence have accused Mr. Torshin, a Russian bank official sanctioned by the Treasury Department as part of the U.S. response to the 2016 interference campaign, of trying to use his affiliation with the NRA to get closer to the Trump campaign in 2016.

Donald Trump Jr., the president’s eldest son, met with Mr. Torshin on the sidelines of the NRA’s 2016 convention in Louisville, Kentucky, but he said they didn’t discuss the presidential election, according to House intelligence committee Republicans.

Mr. Frazer said Mr. Torshin has been a nonvoting life member of the NRA since 2012 and that the group is reviewing its relationship with him.

CNN reported last month that the gun rights group has been setting aside years of documents related to its interactions with Mr. Torshin in preparation for a possible investigation.

The NRA did not answer questions about the CNN report and other issues tied to the Russia connections.

Jim Fowler, a 79-year-old retiree from Waxahachie, Texas, said there probably isn’t anything nefarious going on, but it couldn’t hurt to tread carefully.

“I think that issues of that sort certainly have been going on for some time — it’s not something that just occurred now,” he said. “And I think that we have to be very responsive in a very prudent way to these kind of issues and accept the fact that we have to defend against this.

“I don’t see a collusion aspect — I see a situation where we have bad actors that certainly want to take advantage of everything and we have to be cognizant of that, especially with technology as it is,” he said.


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