Five days ago, the Tennessee Democratic Party stated emphatically that in 2012 Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) met with Alexander Torshin, a now-sanctioned Russian official at the heart of Russia’s efforts to infiltrate the National Rifle Association (NRA).
Blackburn, who is currently running for Tennessee’s open Senate seat, has dodged questions about such a meeting since — but has not yet issued a denial on the topic.
Blackburn’s alleged role in the efforts of both Torshin and accused Russian agent Maria Butina to access high-ranking officials within the NRA — and the Republican Party more broadly — may not have simply ended with a meeting in 2012. After all, Kline Preston, a Nashville-based lawyer who ThinkProgress reported was Blackburn’s former campaign finance chairman and the former head of Marsha Blackburn for Congress, Inc., was the one who first introduced Torshin to NRA leadership. (Torshin has been accused by Spanish authorities of massive money laundering and mafia ties.)
Preston began working with Blackburn as early as 2003 and, according to his website, continued working for Marsha Blackburn for Congress, Inc. through at least 2014, two years after her alleged meeting with Torshin took place.
As the accusations and evidence against Butina and Torshin continue to mount, Preston, like Blackburn, has effectively avoided all questions on his role in the infiltration efforts.
However, ThinkProgress spoke with Preston less than two months ago — a wide-ranging conversation that included Preston saying he viewed Russian President Vladimir Putin as “God-sent” and a leader whose rise was “divine.” Preston also offered some musings on his relationship with Blackburn.
Preston had already told The Tennessean that he was “close” to Blackburn, and that they had been “family friends” for a “long time.” But where Preston revealed to ThinkProgress that he and Blackburn haven’t always seen eye-to-eye on Russia, he hinted that he may try to advise Blackburn’s policies on Russia were she to win the upcoming Senate race. As he told ThinkProgress:
I’ve never asked her for anything with respect to Russia or policy or anything, but she has always voted opposite of what I thought she should. My hunch is, without having had any conversation with her, my hunch is that the Republican whips of the party, whatever, just dictate, ‘Look, here’s the way we are on this.’ She and I don’t share the same [policy preferences on Russia]. Maybe at some point when she wins the Senatorial election, you know, I may try to… (trails off).
Preston did make it clear that he would be encouraging his views — which include supporting Russia’s autocratic model, and backing Russia in Crimea — of his own volition, and not because he was paid to do so by the Kremlin. As he continued:
I don’t represent anybody but myself when it comes to this kind of stuff. I’m not a foreign agent, I’m not getting paid by the Russian state or anything. My interest in the United States and Russia having a close relationship is so that my sons, and other sons, and daughters of good American people, and the sons and daughters of good Russian people, don’t have their lives wasted for some bullshit. Some bullshit conflict.
Despite Preston’s role in supporting Torshin, Preston’s work as a potential adviser to Blackburn wouldn’t necessarily come as a surprise. As another Nashville-based lawyer, who asked not to be named, previously told ThinkProgress, Preston and Blackburn are “thick as thieves.”
Time for a vacation
Preston’s relationship with Blackburn, and her alleged involvement in broader Russian infiltration efforts, won’t be the only unanswered questions pertaining to NRA-Russia revelations over the next few weeks.
On Thursday, four senators — Ron Wyden (D-OR), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) — sent a series of letters to the participants of the NRA’s notorious 2015 trip to Moscow.
NEW: WYDEN, WARREN, BLUMENTHAL, and WHITEHOUSE send letter to participants of NRA trip to Moscow in Dec. 2015 requesting information on payment, Torshin's and Butina's role, information about meetings with sanctioned Russian officials: pic.twitter.com/Gollc9xBd6
— Casey Michel 🇰🇿 (@cjcmichel) July 26, 2018
The letter was sent to a handful of the participants, including former Sheriff David Clarke, former NRA presidents Pete Brownell and David Keene, NRA lifetime member Arnold Goldschlager, and NRA mega-donor Joe Gregory. All traveled to Moscow in December 2015, and all met with sanctioned Russian officials like former Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin.
In their letters, the senators requested information about the trip, including who paid their expenses and their interactions with Rogozin and other sanctioned individuals. They also focused on the role Butina, who helped fund at least part of the group’s trip, played.
“Please confirm and describe the extent to which Ms. Butina, her Right to Bear Arms organization, or any other entity associated with her, invited you, organized, or paid in part or in full for any of your expenses related to the December 2015 trip and provide all related documentation, including invitations, itineraries, e-mails, other correspondence, and receipts,” the senators write.
The letters follow a series of other missives from Wyden, who has spent the past five months requesting information from both the NRA and the Treasury Department pertaining to the financing of the trip, as well as any other Russian monies the NRA may have received. Wyden, joined by Whitehouse and Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ), followed up with the Treasury Department earlier this week, requesting further information about Butina’s particular role in any financial links.
Wyden’s letter to the Treasury Department this week, as well as the letters sent to the 2015 trip participants, mentioned Bridges, LLC, a South Dakota-based company linked to Butina and her boyfriend, Republican lobbyist Paul Erickson. Erickson has claimed that the LLC was set up to help cover Butina’s academic costs. But according to the Sioux Falls Argus Leader, Erickson has continued, through just last month, setting up additional LLCs in the state — the purpose of which remain unknown.