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Republican representative dodges questions about whether she met with key Russian operative

Did Marsha Blackburn meet with Maria Butina's Russian handler?

Marsha Blackburn won't say whether she met with Alexander Torshin, who was Maria Butina's Russian handler. CREDIT: JOHN MOORE / GETTY
Marsha Blackburn won't say whether she met with Alexander Torshin, who was Maria Butina's Russian handler. CREDIT: JOHN MOORE / GETTY

In his years helping accused Russian agent Maria Butina infiltrate the National Rifle Association (NRA), Russian official Alexander Torshin kept coming back to one place: Tennessee.

Torshin, now sanctioned by the U.S. and accused by Spanish authorities of mafia ties and massive money laundering, first came into contact with the NRA via a Nashville-based lawyer, Kline Preston. Torshin additionally served as an election observer in the state in 2012, and swung by again in 2015 for the NRA’s annual convention.

Since Butina was named in last week’s major Justice Department indictment, the details of her operations, as well as the expanding roster of NRA and Republican Party officials she accessed, have begun to paint a clearer picture of the broader Russian effort. The new developments have also reignited questions about whether Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), a close associate of Preston’s, met with Torshin and, if so, what they might have discussed.

The question gained new credence over the weekend, as the details of Butina’s and Torshin’s operations have come out. On Saturday, Tennessee Democratic Party spokesperson Mark Brown told WRCB that Blackburn had met Torshin in 2012.

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“Blackburn has a more than decade-long history of meeting with Russian nationals on Tennessee soil,” Brown said. “In 2012, she met with accused spy master Alexander Torshin when he visited Williamson County — her home county — as an election observer, squired by her former campaign president, attorney, and friend G. Kline Preston IV. Blackburn’s actions speak much louder than her words.”

Two days later, the Washington Post attempted to confirm the claim with Blackburn’s campaign. However, Blackburn’s camp “did not provide any comment specifically on the allegations.”

Likewise, Blackburn’s congressional office and campaign did not respond to ThinkProgress’ request for comment about whether she met with Torshin in 2012.

Blackburn’s buddies

While Blackburn has thus far dodged questions about her possible ties to Torshin, the questions present yet another thread in a dense, tangled web of contacts between Russian officials, alleged Russian agents, and Tennessee political operatives.

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For instance, as ThinkProgress first reported, Preston — the lawyer who initially introduced Torshin to the NRA in 2011 — said that he worked for years as the campaign finance chairman for Blackburn, as well as the president of Marsha Blackburn for Congress, Inc. Documents obtained by ThinkProgress show that Preston was listed as president of Marsha Blackburn for Congress, Inc. as early as 2003, alongside Blackburn’s husband. Preston’s website added that he served as president through at least 2014 — two years after Torshin allegedly met with Blackburn. (Preston told ThinkProgress that he viewed Russian President Vladimir Putin as “God-sent,” a figure appointed by the “divine.”)

For good measure, ThinkProgress first reported that Preston worked closely with Doug Grindstaff, another longtime Tennessee politico who is now serving as campaign treasurer for Mark Green, a Republican state senator hoping to replace Blackburn as she vacates her House seat to run for U.S. Senate.

And it’s not as if Blackburn has turned down meetings with other Russian officials who know Preston. In 2008, Blackburn met with Igor Matveev, then working as the first secretary of the Russian embassy, in Nashville. Matveev, who said he and Blackburn “discuss[ed] U.S.-Russia relations,” later joined both Preston and Torshin in monitoring the U.S.’s 2012 elections, as reported by NPR’s Tim Mak.

It was that election-monitoring trip that brought Torshin to Williamson County, Tennessee, where Blackburn lives — and when Blackburn’s alleged meeting with Torshin, which her camp has not denied, took place. (As Torshin wrote on the day of the election, “We’re continuing to work in Tennessee.”) Two days after the 2012 election, Torshin even tweeted out a plaque awarded to Williamson County’s election commission in honor of their early voting numbers.

Likewise, Torshin’s Twitter feed shows him and Preston meeting Gov. Bill Haslam (R) two days after the election.

Like Butina, Torshin, as NPR has also reported, went out of his way to try to court Republican higher-ups, such as former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (R). And even though Blackburn’s camp has neither denied nor commented on the claims that she met with Torshin when he was in Tennessee in 2012, that hasn’t dampened Torshin’s enthusiasm for the state. As Torshin wrote just last year, of all the states he has visited, there’s only one that’s his favorite: Tennessee.