September 27, 2019; Washington Post
A report issued last week by the Senate Finance Committee’s Democratic staff after an 18-month investigation adds yet another challenge to the crisis management agenda of the already-beleaguered National Rifle Association (NRA). Titled The NRA and Russia—How a tax-exempt organization became a foreign asset, the report accuses the NRA of actively cooperating with Russian efforts to disrupt the 2016 presidential election and of improperly using its assets for the private benefit of its leadership. It recommends that the Internal Revenue Service audit the nonprofit to determine what, if any, penalties are warranted.
Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon, the ranking Democrat on the Finance Committee, contends that the lure of personal gain was used as bait by Russian agents to build a relationship with the NRA that could be exploited as part of an effort to disrupt the 2016 election. Wyden told Tom Hamburger of the Washington Post, “Russian nationals effectively used the promise of lucrative personal business opportunities to capture the NRA and gain access to the American political system.”
The report alleges that two figures identified by Special Counsel Robert Mueller as part of Russia’s campaign, Maria Butina and Alexander Torshin, received assistance from the NRA in their effort to bore into the US political system.
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At the heart of the accusations is a 2015 trip to Moscow that Wyden describes as “an official trip undertaken so NRA insiders could get rich—a clear violation of the principle that tax-exempt resources should not be used for personal benefit.” Butina and Torshin partnered with NRA staff to organize a trip that included, according to the report, “meetings with weapons manufacturers that produce weaponry for the Russian military and numerous entities and individuals under United States sanction or representatives and subsidiaries of entities under sanction.”
The NRA and its supporters dismissed the report as mere political posturing by their opponents and reject the evidence the report puts forward. “This report promotes a politically motivated and contrived narrative,” said William A. Brewer III, the NRA’s lawyer. Senate Finance Committee Chairman Charles Grassley (R-IA) dismissed the report as “a political document directed at an organization well known in US politics to be despised by Democrats.”
A separate report written by the Republican staff of the committee concluded that if there was any wrong done, it was only a minor indiscretion and “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 IRS is unlikely to charge ahead with Senator Wyden’s recommendations in the current political moment. More likely, the information developed in this report will be picked up by the two local attorneys general, New York’s Letitia James and Washington, DC’s Karl A. Racine, who are in the midst of examining the NRA’s operations. For the NRA, whose leadership that is under siege and whose financial situation been made precarious by legal fees and decreased revenue, Senator Wyden and his staff have added another load to carry.—Martin Levine