Opinion: Putin, Trump and the NRA

On May 16, 2016, an NRA official sent a fascinating email to Rick Dearborn, at the time a high-level Trump campaign official.1.

The email read:

“Happenstance and the (sometimes) 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. Russia is quietly but actively seeking a dialogue with the U.S. that isn’t forthcoming under the current administration. And for reasons that we can discuss in person or on the phone, the Kremlin believes that the only possibility of a true re-set in this relationship would be with a new Republican White House.”

In that email, Rick Erickson of the NRA goes on to tell Dearborn that Russia wanted to make contact with the Trump campaign at the NRA convention in Kentucky that was to begin three days later. “Putin is deadly serious about building a good relationship with Mr. Trump,” Erickson wrote. “He wants to extend an invitation to Mr. Trump to visit him in the Kremlin before the election.”

The day after receiving that email, Dearborn informed top campaign officials -- Paul Manafort, Rick Gates and Jared Kushner -- of the Russian outreach and expression of Putin’s support. And at a private dinner at the NRA convention a few days later, Donald Trump Jr. met at a private dinner party with Putin associate Alexander Torshin, pretty much as Erickson had requested. According to Torshin, he and Trump Jr. were seated next to each other for that dinner.

Now why do I find that so fascinating? Let us count the reasons.

1.) The NRA, which sells itself to its members as a patriotic American organization, is acting here as a Russian intelligence asset, serving as an emissary for the Russian government into American political and social circles. In fact, it’s almost cute how Erickson believes himself to be “cultivating a back-channel to President Putin’s Kremlin,” completely oblivious to the fact that he has the relationship exactly backward. He’s the one being cultivated by the Russians, to serve exactly this kind of purpose.

2.) In their minority report released this week, Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee point out that Erickson's email requesting the meeting and expressing Putin's support for Trump occurred three weeks after Trump aide George Papadopoulus was told that Russia had "dirt" on Hillary Clinton in the form of "thousands of emails." Two weeks after the Erickson email and his NRA meeting, Trump Jr. received the infamous email telling him that the Russian government had "offered to provide the Trump campaign with some official documents and information that would incriminate Hillary and her dealings with Russia and would be very useful to your father." As we know, Trump Jr. responded that "if it's what you say I love it especially later in the summer."

3.) In that same email leading up to the Trump Tower meeting, Trump Jr. was also told that “This is obviously very high level and sensitive information but is part of Russia and its government's support for Mr. Trump.” I have always marveled at Trump’s response to that information, which was no response whatsoever. Discovering that the Russian government wants to help your father’s presidential campaign should have been cause for astonishment, but Trump Jr. treated it as accepted fact. The Erickson email sent three weeks previous, again expressing Putin’s intentions, helps to explain that lack of astonishment.

4.) In its own findings, the Republican-led House Intelligence Committee dismisses the importance of the emails from Erickson, who is not even named in their report. Nor does it mention that the Russian outreach to Trump had come via the NRA. They go on to conclude that the discussion between Torshin and Trump Jr. at the NRA convention "centered on shooting and hunting. It did not focus on the U.S. presidential election," which seems odd given how much work the Russians had put into arranging that

Moreover, the committee’s sole source for the claim that no politics was discussed at that dinner was Trump Jr., the same man who initially claimed that his meeting with Russians at Trump Tower had been about “adoptions.”

5.) So I have questions: Who was Erickson’s “back-channel to President Putin’s Kremlin?” How was it arranged that Trump Jr. would sit next to Torshin at that NRA dinner, as Torshin claimed? DId Torshin use his influence at the NRA -- he’s a lifetime NRA member, and hosted NRA officials on a tour of Russia -- to arrange that? When Erickson writes in his email that the reasons for Putin’s backing can only be discussed “in person or on the phone,” what were those reasons? Even a rudimentary investigation would seek to answer such questions. Yet as Democrats point out in their minority report, House Intelligence Committee Chair Devin Nunes and his GOP colleagues did not want those answers. They refused Democratic requests to interview Erickson, just as they also refused to try to interview Torshin and his deputy, Maria Butina.

They slammed that door shut, and slammed doors are inherently interesting, are they not, Mr. Mueller?

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1Dearborn went on to serve as the executive director of Trump's transition team and as deputy chief of staff until his ouster in December of 2017.