Late last week, the Federal Election Commission (FEC) deadlocked on whether to pursue an investigation into potential Russian financing of the National Rifle Association (NRA). The split 2-2 vote fell along partisan lines, with the FEC’s two Republicans voting against any further inquiry into whether Alexander Torshin, a sanctioned Russian official, and Maria Butina, a convicted Russian agent, grew close to the NRA in order to help direct the group’s 2016 political donations.
FEC Chair Ellen Weintraub castigated her Republican colleagues in an open letter, issued immediately after the vote.
BREAKING: @FEC's Republicans block all investigation of & enforcement against Russians Torshin & Butina re the NRA & the 2016 presidential election.
Result: FEC does nothing to find out the truth behind one of the most blockbuster campaign finance allegations in recent memory. pic.twitter.com/KgrJLJTuZY
— Ellen L Weintraub (@EllenLWeintraub) August 16, 2019
In the letter, Weintraub noted that the NRA not only admitted that it had received previous donations from unidentified Russian nationals, but that the NRA likewise saw a substantial spike in its own political donations in 2016, issuing nearly $35 million more in political donations in 2016 than in the previous presidential election. The NRA admitted that Butina had once paid nearly $570 at a 2015 NRA fundraiser, but said it was unable to locate any donations from Torshin or sanctioned Russian official Dmitry Rogozin, with whom NRA officials also met in Moscow in 2015.
Indeed, Weintraub’s letter was scathing, regarding both her Republicans colleagues’ votes against further investigation, as well as regarding the NRA’s relationship with Torshin and Butina.
As Weintraub wrote:
Some allegations are too serious to ignore. Too serious to simply take Respondents’ denials at face value. Too serious to play games with. Yet in this matter, my colleagues ran their usual evidence-blocking play and the Commission’s attorneys placed too much faith in the few facts Respondents put before us.
As a result, this agency barely lifted a finger to find out the truth behind one of the most blockbuster campaign finance allegations in recent memory….
[The NRA’s] search of its records for foreign contributions in this enforcement context was ludicrously inadequate. Who’s on this list of “known Russian nationals”? We don’t know. Were there any suspicious patterns of transactions that would indicate that contributions were being made in the name of another? We don’t know. The NRA’s effort was hardly more thorough than searching a contributor list for the name “Vladimir Putin” and calling it a day.
Weintraub wasn’t the only one to condemn the FEC Republicans’ votes. In a statement to ThinkProgress, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) slammed FEC Republicans.
“A foreign adversary interfered in the 2016 presidential election and the response from Republicans at every level, whether it be President [Donald] Trump, congressional Republicans, or now the Republican appointees on the Federal Election Commission, has been to bury their heads in the sand or actively obstruct getting to the bottom of what happened,” Wyden said.
It’s unclear what next steps may remain to uncover ties between Russia and the NRA. The gun-rights group has imploded over the past few months, with unprecedented infighting spilling into the public. Six NRA board members have already resigned this year, and multiple attorneys general have opened formal inquiries into the group’s internal financing.
Regardless of the FEC vote, it’s clear that the group’s proximity to Torshin and Butina in the lead-up to the 2016 election was, to say the least, inadvisable. As a series of internal FBI analyses, released just earlier this month, indicate, Torshin — who had previously been linked to a massive Spanish money laundering operation — was considered by the FBI a “mobster” who was well-known for his ties to “Russian Organized Crime… and the Russian government.”