Editor’s note, July 16, 2018: Russian national Maria Butina has been charged by U.S. prosecutors for operating as a covert agent in an alleged political conspiracy against the United States. The timeline below has been updated since her arrest with additional reporting on her political activity inside the United States in 2015 and 2016.
For more than a year, reports have trickled out about deepening ties among prominent members of the National Rifle Association, conservative Republicans, a budding gun-rights movement in Russia—and their convergence in the Trump campaign.
Now attention is focused around a middle-aged Russian central bank official and a photogenic young gun activist from Siberia who share several passions: posing with assault rifles, making connections with Republican lawmakers and presidential candidates, and publicizing their travels between Moscow and America on social media. Alexander Torshin and his protégé Maria Butina also share an extraordinary status with America’s largest gun lobbying group, according to Torshin: “Today in NRA (USA) I know only 2 people from the Russian Federation with the status of ‘Life Member’: Maria Butina and I,” he tweeted the day after Donald Trump was elected president.
Of particular interest are their overtures to Trump. Butina asked him directly at a campaign event about the future of “damaging” sanctions against Russia. Torshin twice tried to meet with Trump, according to the New York Times, and did meet with Donald Trump Jr. at an NRA event. Meanwhile, the House Intelligence Committee has heard sworn testimony about possible Kremlin “infiltration” of the NRA and other conservative groups. And the FBI reportedly is investigating whether Torshin illegally funneled money to the Trump campaign through the NRA—which backed Trump with a record $30 million.
Torshin, a former Russian senator and longtime ally of Vladimir Putin, has been accused of having ties to the Russian mob (an allegation he has denied). Butina, a graduate student since fall 2016 at American University in Washington, DC—who founded a Russian gun rights group and worked as Torshin’s assistant—has reportedly bragged about her connections to the Trump campaign.
Does this odd pair indicate anything more than a far-flung association of international gun rights advocates? Neither Torshin nor Butina responded to our requests for comment, but we built a timeline from hundreds of their photos and social-media posts going back seven years—including previously unreported material—that stirs further questions about their roles.
Introductions and a new gun group
2011: Torshin, then a Russian senator, is introduced to NRA President David Keene through G. Kline Preston IV, a lawyer from Nashville, Tennessee, who had been doing business in Russia for years. Preston later tells the Washington Post, “The value system of Southern Christians and the value system of Russians are very much in line.”
2011: Maria Butina, in her early 20s, creates Right to Bear Arms, aiming to seed a gun rights movement in Russia.
2011: US gun manufacturer Arsenal Inc. sells 100 limited-edition AK-74s signed by Mikhail Kalashnikov—a personal friend of Torshin’s—with the anticipated $100,000 or more in proceeds to go to the NRA-ILA, the organization’s political lobbying arm.
December 2011: Preston serves as an international observer of Russia’s legislative elections, calling them free and fair, despite mass street protests and European observers reporting fraudulent activity.
Targeted by the Kremlin
2012: The FBI warns Republican Rep. Dana Rohrabacher—a cold warrior turned Russia apologist who claimed to have once lost a drunken arm-wrestling match to Putin in a Washington dive bar—that the Kremlin aims to recruit him as a source.
April 15, 2012: Torshin tweets about returning from the NRA annual convention to a rally in Moscow for the Right to Bear Arms, where he notes how “similar,” “good-looking,” and “confident” the supporters of both gun groups are.
July 24, 2012: Torshin and Butina lobby the Russian senate to expand gun rights.
November 2012: Torshin and Preston observe the US presidential elections in Nashville and allege improprieties took place on behalf of President Barack Obama.
From Houston to Moscow
May 2013: After attending the NRA annual convention in Houston, Torshin writes, “Kalashnikov couldn’t join me, though we have both been ‘life members’ of the NRA for years,” adding that “dozens of AK-47 clones” on display at the event represented one of “our country’s greatest accomplishments.”
November 2013: Torshin and Butina invite Keene to Moscow for a Right to Bear Arms meeting that draws 200 people and features a fashion show, including attire designed for carrying concealed weapons.
November 2013: Former UN ambassador and future Trump national security adviser John Bolton appears in a video in which he talks up gun rights in Russia. Bolton is a member of the NRA’s “international affairs subcommittee” at the time. NPR later reports that Bolton recorded the address at Keene’s request for the Russian legislature, and that Right to Bear Arms used the video in its lobbying.
“We would like to be friends with NRA”
January 2014: Following the death of Kalashnikov at age 94, the Washington Times publishes an appreciation written by Torshin. Former NRA President Keene is the op-ed editor at the time.
April 2014: Torshin and Butina attend the NRA convention in Indianapolis, where Butina joins Keene for meetings. Butina later explains the purpose: “We protect gun rights in Russia, and people who are gun owners and in a situation of self-defense.” She adds, “We would like to be friends with NRA.”
September 2014: Paul Erickson—an NRA member and longtime conservative Republican operative from South Dakota—attends a Right to Bear Arms meeting in Moscow with Butina. Erickson has known Butina at least since November 2013, when he apparently traveled to Russia with Keene, whom he has known at least since 1995.
November 18, 2014: Russia changes its laws to allow citizens to carry guns in public for self-defense.
Trump to Butina: “I don’t think you’d need the sanctions”
January 2015: Torshin is appointed deputy governor of the Central Bank of Russia.
March 2015: Butina announces on Facebook that she will attend the NRA’s upcoming convention in Nashville. She notes the importance of “paying attention to the politicians that we have more similarities than differences.”
April 2015: Butina posts about 200 pictures from Nashville, including one with Republican Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin, who she says greeted her in Russian. She notes he’s “one of the possible future nominees for the post of US President,” and ponders the “beginning of a new dialogue between Russia and the US.” Donald Trump also attends, telling the crowd, “I promise you one thing, if I run for president and if I win, the Second Amendment will be totally protected, that I can tell you.” Torshin, also present, later tells Bloomberg that he had a “jovial exchange” with the future president.
April 2015: Butina and Torshin meet in Washington with Treasury and Fed officials to discuss U.S.-Russian economic relations; the meetings are arranged by the Center for the National Interest, a foreign policy think tank whose board members include the NRA’s Keene.
April 16, 2015: Butina gives a talk at the University of South Dakota; she says Right to Bear Arms now has 10,000 members and 76 offices “all over Russia.”
June 2015: Four days before Trump announces his campaign, Butina writes in the conservative National Interest urging friendship between “the bear and the elephant”: “It may take the election of a Republican to the White House in 2016 to improve relations between the Russian Federation and the United States.”
July 9, 2015: Erickson contacts Trump campaign advisor Sam Nunberg, seeking to set up meet-and-greet between Trump and Butina two days later around a campaign event in Las Vegas.
July 11, 2015: At FreedomFest in Las Vegas, Butina asks Trump during an audience Q&A, “What will be your foreign politics…and do you want to continue the politics of sanctions that are damaging on both economy?” Trump responds, “I know Putin and I’ll tell you what, we get along with Putin…I don’t think you’d need the sanctions. I think that we would get along very, very well.”
July 13, 2015: Butina posts photos from the Wisconsin event where Gov. Scott Walker announces his presidential candidacy.
August 29, 2015: Preston tweets a picture of Trump speaking to the National Federation of Republican Assemblies, posting in Russian, “Donald Trump today in Nashville. He is a friend of Russia.”
September 25, 2015: A Right to Bear Arms post on Facebook features a Trump meme, attributing to him in Russian, “Nobody can encroach on the citizenry’s right to store and carry firearms. Period.”
December 8-13, 2015: Erickson, Keene, future NRA President Pete Brownell, and Milwaukee Sheriff David Clarke meet with Kremlin officials in Moscow, where they have lavish meals and visit a gun manufacturer. Clarke, an outspoken Trump supporter, later files an ethics report showing that Right to Bear Arms paid $6,000 for his expenses.
December 10, 2015: Future Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn is also in Moscow, attending a gala for the Kremlin-controlled RT media network. Flynn, who sits next to Putin and across from future Green Party candidate Jill Stein, gives a speech for which he is paid $45,000—a sum he fails to report on his financial disclosure forms.
January 21, 2016: Trump speaks at the National Shooting Sports Foundation’s annual “SHOT Show” in Las Vegas; Don Jr. and Eric Trump also attend, posing with representatives from Sig Sauer, whose “Black Mamba” MCX assault rifle would soon be used in the Orlando nightclub massacre. Ten days later, at an event at an Iowa gun shop, Don Jr. and Eric Trump shoot assault rifles and brag about their concealed-carry permits. “I shoot all the time,” Don Jr. tells the Telegraph. “Every weekend.”
February 13, 2016: Torshin writes on Twitter, “Maria Butina is currently in the USA. She writes to me that D. Trump (an NRA member) really is for cooperation with Russia.”
February 2016: Butina and Erickson form Bridges LLC. Erickson later tells McClatchy that they created the South Dakota-based company for Butina to get financial assistance for her graduate studies—“an unusual way to use a LLC,” as McClatchy dryly notes.
February 23, 2016: After winning the Nevada primary, Trump gives a victory speech hailing his sons’ gun bona fides: “[Don Jr.] loves the rifle stuff. This is serious rifle. This is serious NRA, both of them, both of them. We love the Second Amendment folks. Nobody loves it more than us, so just remember that.”
March 3, 2016: In a primary debate, Trump is reminded that in his 2000 book, The America We Deserve, he supported a ban on assault weapons. His response: “I don’t support it anymore.”
May 2016: In an email to Trump campaign aide Rick Dearborn, with the subject line “Kremlin Connection,” Erickson says Russia is “quietly but actively seeking a dialogue with the U.S.” and proposes using the NRA convention to set up “first contact” with the Trump team. According to a New York Times report and FBI affidavit, Erickson writes that the “international reach of the NRA placed me in a position a couple of years ago to slowly begin cultivating a back-channel to President Putin’s Kremlin.” The email doesn’t name Torshin but appears to reference him as “President Putin’s emissary” who planned to attend a dinner hosted by conservative Christian activist Rick Clay. Meanwhile, Clay sends an email to Dearborn with the subject line “Russian backdoor overture and dinner invite,” seeking a meeting between Trump and Torshin. Dearborn forwards Clay’s email to Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who reportedly nixes the proposal.
May 19, 2016: On the eve of the NRA annual convention in Louisville, Kentucky, Butina appears as a featured guest speaker at a fundraiser involving Republican Gov. Matt Bevin. According to the Courier Journal, Butina—whose appearance was arranged last-minute at the suggestion of an unidentified “NRA associate”—is introduced as the chairwoman of the “Russian NRA.”
May 19-20, 2016: Torshin meets Don Jr. at a private dinner the night before his father speaks at the NRA convention in Louisville. Don Jr.’s lawyer later says the exchange “was all gun-related small talk.” Butina also meets briefly with Don Jr. at the convention.
The NRA endorses Trump for president. Trump tells the crowd, “The only way to save our Second Amendment is to vote for a person that you all know named Donald Trump.”
June 2016: Butina is part of a group that requests a meeting with the Trump campaign to discuss the persecution of Christians worldwide, according to Clay, who later tells the Washington Post that Dearborn turned down the request.
June 15, 2016: House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy tells fellow GOP leaders in a private conversation, “There’s two people I think Putin pays: Rohrabacher and Trump. Swear to God.” House Speaker Paul Ryan immediately shuts down the conversation and swears those present to secrecy. When a recording of the conversation later becomes public, McCarthy says he was just joking.
August 2016: Hours after Trump appears to threaten Hillary Clinton during a campaign rally by invoking “Second Amendment people” who might “do something” to stop her, Politico reports that the NRA has bought its most expensive pro-Trump campaign ad yet: a $3 million spot attacking Clinton.
September 2016: Don Jr. appears in a promotional video for gun silencer manufacturer SilencerCo, whose CEO subsequently donates $50,000 to the Trump Victory fund. “That thing’s awesome,” Don Jr. says, firing guns in the opening segment. The 38-minute video closes with the CEO saying, “Your father is someone that we believe in very strongly.”
September-October 2016: With encouragement from Erickson, Butina socializes with J.D. Gordon, who served as director of national security for the Trump campaign until August and is now part of Trump’s nascent transition team. The two attend a Styx concert together in Washington, and Butina attends Gordon’s birthday party. Erickson tells Gordon in one email exchange that Butina is a “special friend” of the NRA and notes her role as special assistant to the deputy governor of the Bank of Russia.
October 2016: A wave of NRA-sponsored TV political ads targets voters in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and North Carolina. Since the end of June, the NRA has aired more than 10,000 ads criticizing Clinton or extolling Trump—about 16 percent of all TV ads produced by Trump and his allies. Trump goes on to win all three states.
Early November 2016: Pro-gun messages feature prominently in “junk news” spread by Russian trolls and others on Twitter, particularly in key battleground states, according to a later analysis by Oxford University researchers.
November 8, 2016: Donald Trump is elected the 45th president of the United States.
November 12, 2016: Butina hosts a costume party in DC for her 28th birthday, attended by Erickson and Trump campaign aides. Erickson dresses as Russian mystic Rasputin, and Butina dresses as the Russian empress Alexandra. Two unnamed guests tell the Daily Beast that Butina bragged about being part of the Trump campaign’s communications with Russia.
“You came through for me”
Jan. 20, 2017: Butina and Erickson attend the Freedom Ball, one of the three official inaugural balls Trump attends.
January 31, 2017: Torshin, Erickson, Rohrabacher (who has received at least $18,000 from the NRA over the past 20 years), and former Kremlin staffer Andrey Kolyadin attend a private event on Capitol Hill hosted by George O’Neill Jr., a Rockefeller heir and longtime conservative activist who has known Erickson at least since the 1992 presidential campaign of Pat Buchanan.
February 1, 2017: Torshin and Butina attend a lengthy dinner at Bistro Bis, an upscale eatery on Capitol Hill, where they dine “with two Republican Congressmen, a conservative magazine publisher, a longtime GOP consultant and a close friend of top White House strategist Steve Bannon,” according to TIME.
February 2, 2017: Torshin and Butina accompany a delegation of more than a dozen Russian officials and academics to the National Prayer Breakfast, where Trump is the main attraction. Kolyadin posts a photo with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, commenting that he “treats Russia pretty well, by the way.” Kolyadin later brags about his “direct access to leadership,” noting, “we sat very close to each other and just smiled.”
Torshin was scheduled to meet with President Trump, but the meeting is canceled when a national security aide points out that Torshin reportedly is under investigation by Spanish authorities for an alleged “godfather” role in organized crime and money laundering. For his part, Rohrabacher tells Yahoo News that Torshin is “sort of the conservatives’ favorite Russian.”
February 24, 2017: “For years, the media couldn’t have cared less about Vladimir Putin or Russia,” NRA leader Wayne LaPierre says in a speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference, giving early voice to a “deep state” conspiracy theory on Trump’s behalf: “But now, barely a month into Trump’s presidency, they’re ‘horrified’ and all a-fret over the ‘Russian-American equation.’ Even more alarming is that they’ve apparently found willing co-conspirators among some in the US intelligence community.”
April 28, 2017: Having recently reversed an Obama-era law making it more difficult for mentally ill people to buy guns, Trump addresses the NRA annual convention: “You came through for me,” he says, “and I am going to come through for you.”
August 15, 2017: After Rohrabacher meets with WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange at the Ecuadorean Embassy in London, he claims he has evidence to share with the White House that the Russians did not hack the Democratic National Committee. But White House chief of staff John Kelly rebuffs him. Rohrabacher later tells the Intercept, “What is preventing me from talking to Trump about this is the existence of a special prosecutor. Not only Kelly, but others are worried if I say one word to Trump about Russia, that it would appear to out-of-control prosecutors that that is where the collusion is.”
October to November 2017: Russian-linked trolls spread conspiracy theories following mass shootings on the Las Vegas Strip and at a church in Sutherland Springs, Texas.
November 14, 2017: “It appears the Russians…infiltrated the NRA,” Glenn Simpson, founder of the opposition research firm Fusion GPS, testifies to the House Intelligence Committee. “They targeted various conservative organizations, religious and otherwise, and they seem to have made a very concerted effort to get in with the NRA.” Referencing Torshin and Butina, he adds, “The most absurd [thing] about this is that, you know, Vladimir Putin is not in favor of universal gun ownership for Russians. And so it’s all a big charade, basically.”
Investigations and a politicized school massacre
January 18, 2018: McClatchy reports the FBI is investigating whether Torshin illegally funneled money to the Trump campaign through the NRA. (The FBI would “neither confirm nor deny” the investigation to Mother Jones.)
January 29, 2018: Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff, the ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, tells NPR that the committee’s probe of the NRA-Russia angle has been stymied by the Republican majority.
February 2, 2018: Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden sends separate letters to the NRA and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin demanding they provide any documents showing financial ties between the NRA and Russia. “I am specifically troubled by the possibility that Russian-backed shell companies or intermediaries may have circumvented laws designed to prohibit foreign meddling in our elections,” Wyden writes. NRA General Counsel John Frazer responds, “The NRA and its related entities do not accept funds from foreign persons or entities in connection with United States.”
February 14, 2018: Following the school massacre in Parkland, Florida, Kremlin-linked trolls and Russian state media jump into action on Twitter, stirring both sides of the gun debate.
February 21, 2018: During a live-televised “listening session” with Parkland survivors at the White House, Trump endorses NRA talking points to end “gun-free zones” and arm teachers to “harden” America’s schools.
February 22, 2018: Trump hails the leaders of the NRA: “Great People and Great American Patriots. They love our Country and will do the right thing. MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN!” NRA spokesperson Dana Loesch echoes Trump’s blame on the FBI’s Russia investigation for the failure to prevent the Parkland massacre: “Maybe if you politicized your agency less and did your job more, we wouldn’t have these problems.”
March 2018: In an NRA magazine, LaPierre blasts media bias against Trump, specifically calling out coverage of “the bogus Russia investigation.”
March 1, 2018: Trump and Vice President Mike Pence meet privately in the Oval Office with NRA Executive Director Chris Cox. Trump calls the meeting “great.” Cox announces: “POTUS & VPOTUS support the Second Amendment, support strong due process and don’t want gun control. #NRA #MAGA.”
The NRA, Trump administration, and Paul Erickson did not respond to requests for comment.
Additional reporting and translations from Russian by Hannah Levintova. This story has been updated since its initial publication on March 8, 2018.
Top image credit: Shalgin Alexander/TASS/ZUMA; Anton Novoderezhkin/ITAR-TASS/ZUMA; Jonathan Alcorn/ZUMA; FerhatMatt/Getty