Did Vladimir Putin-connected Russian banker Alexander Torshin, purported handler of accused Russian spy Maria Butina, expose Donald Trump Jr. to criminal liability? It’s a question that has raised been before, but it was asked again on Tuesday after CNN reported that special counsel Robert Mueller “wants to know about 2016 Trump campaign’s ties to NRA.”
In one sense, this isn’t news it all. The National Rifle Association’s activity before the 2016 election has already been under scrutiny. Butina was accused separately from the Mueller probe of conspiracy to act as a foreign agent, and pleaded guilty to the charge. When Butina did so, she implicated Torshin and her NRA-connected ex-boyfriend Paul Erickson in the crime of “agree[ing] and conspir[ing]” with Butina to “establish unofficial lines of communication with Americans having power and influence over U.S. politics.”
Butina has already admitted that she traveled to the U.S. to attend an NRA convention, met members of the Republican Party and eventually asked her suspected handler Torshin if she should develop a relationship with President-elect Donald Trump‘s inner circle. As part of a plea deal, Butina admitted that she and Erickson conspired with Torshin and at least one other person “for Butina to act in the United States under the direction of Russian Official without prior notification to the Attorney General.”
In another sense, this is potentially significant news. These are Mueller’s questions, not the questions of federal prosecutors who put Butina behind bars at the Alexandria Detention Center. New information about Mueller’s NRA questions, when he asked them and to whom he asked them are adding a new element to the whole affair.
Former Trump campaign aide Sam Nunberg said that Mueller asked him questions about the Trump campaign ties to the NRA in February 18. But the most interesting detail provided was that Mueller was still asking these questions “about the relationship between the campaign and the gun group […] as recently as about a month ago.”
Two questions that have consistently come up in the news of late: When will Mueller’s Probe end; will Donald Trump Jr. end up behind bars for making false statements? Trump Jr.’s opponents, Michael Avenatti chief among them, have claimed that there’s a sealed indictment with Trump Jr.’s name on it. Other rumors said Trump Jr. was telling friends he was afraid of an indictment. So far, none of this has come to pass.
The reason Trump Jr. is of particular interest in the NRA investigation context is that we already know he met with Alexander Torshin. We also know that Trump Jr. answered congressional questions about that meeting in Sept. 2017.
Here’s what Trump Jr. told Congress when asked about Torshin and the NRA dinner:
Question: There’s also been some press about an NRA dinner you attended. Do you know Mr. Aleksander Torshin, T-O-R-S-H-I-N?
Trump Jr.: Yes, I met him at a dinner.
Q: Was that at the NRA dinner in I believe June of 2016?
Trump Jr.: Yes.
Q: At that dinner, did you discuss with him any coordination between the Trump campaign and the Russian government?
Trump Jr.: No, but to clarify, he was not at dinner with me. He was at a table nearby. I was at a dinner with 30 top people at the NRA I believe and someone who had known him asked if I would say hello. So I wasn’t having dinner with him.
Q: Would you say you have a brief conversation with him, a long one?
Trump Jr.: Brief, a few minutes.
Q: Do you remember at all the content of that conversation?
Trump Jr.: It was the NRA show. I believe he’s a gun enthusiast.
Q: And did that conversation involve any discussion of quid pro quo between the Russian government and the Trump campaign?
Trump Jr.: None at all.
This, along with the Trump Tower 2016 meeting with Russia lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya and questions about Trump Jr.’s knowledge of the so-called ‘Moscow Project,” could be the most perilous areas, legally speaking, for Trump Jr. In this Q&A, Trump Jr. categorically denied setting up a quid pro quo with the Russian government.
Questions about NRA spending in 2016 have otherwise been raised. The gun rights organization is said to have spent $30 million backing Trump for president. Additional concerns were expressed in July 2018, when the Trump U.S. Treasury Department announced it would no longer require some nonprofit organizations to name individual donors who gave the organizations more than $5,000 on the organization’s tax return documents — NRA, included.
Regardless, special counsel Mueller has likely viewed NRA tax filings revealing donors behind the $30 million that was spent to help get Donald Trump elected in 2016. That detail came on the heels of speculation about the origins of the NRA donations and whether it was done with “Russian money.”
Law&Crime also reported that in May 2018 wiretapped Torshin communications were forwarded by Spanish police to the FBI.
Prosecutor José Grinda leads high-profile investigations into Spanish and foreign organized crime operating in Spain and, according to Grinda, FBI officials requested and received transcripts of wiretapped conversations between Torshin and Alexander Romanov. The latter man, Romanov, was convicted of money laundering–after pleading guilty–in mid-2016.
On one such recording, Romanov apparently referred to Torshin as “El Padrino,” or the godfather.
In a statement provided to Yahoo News in May, Grinda said, “Just a few months ago, the wiretaps of these telephone conversations were given to the FBI.”
Grinda would add that “Mr. Trump’s son should be concerned.”
Torshin has been wanted in Spain since 2013 at least, when the Guardia Civil attempted to arrest him as he had planned to travel to the Spanish island of Mallorca for Romanov’s birthday party. Prosecutors, led by Grinda, wanted to arrest Torshin over allegations of organized crime and money laundering.
During their investigation, the Guardia Civil wiretapped Romanov’s phone and reportedly obtained 33 conversations with Torshin–including the one allegedly implicating Donald Trump Jr. Ultimately, however, Torshin never showed up to the party. Spanish authorities believe he was tipped off by Russian intelligence.
Colin Kalmbacher contributed to this report.
[Image via Bob Levey/Getty Images]