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What it means that Russia may have donated to the NRA to help Trump

2011 Russia Day Awards
Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) and Alexander Torshin (center) attend a Russia Day event in the Kremlin on June 12, 2011, in Moscow.
Konstantin Zavrazhin/Getty Images

Life has moved pretty fast over the past week. The government shut down and reopened. We learned the answers to questions unasked, like, “How exactly did President Trump pay off a porn actress to stay silent about their affair?” The White House press operation clarified that Trump’s racist goal of shifting immigration policy toward Northern European countries was based on the view that other foreign countries are “shithouses,” not “shitholes,” as originally reported.

But from the perspective of a blog about political parties, there is one undernoticed story with enormous implications for American politics. Last Thursday, McClatchy DC published a story titled “FBI Investigating Whether Russian Money Went to NRA to Help Trump.” It states:

The FBI is investigating whether a top Russian banker with ties to the Kremlin [Alexander Torshin] illegally funneled money to the National Rifle Association to help Donald Trump win the presidency, two sources familiar with the matter have told McClatchy.

At this point, there are few details, and the NRA is not responding to press inquiries. The McClatchy story traces Torshin’s relationship with the NRA, and TPM adds more details about the ties between Torshin and his aide Maria Butina and the Republican Party network. But it is not known a) if the basic charge is true, b) how much money (if any) was donated illegally, or c) which NRA officials (if any) knew about the illegal donations if they existed.

Nonetheless, it is worth a few lines to consider the implications.

This could be devastating for the NRA

At the least, the NRA will have to pay the legal expenses that accompany scandal investigations. As the investigation deepens, the reputation of the NRA could be harmed, decreasing its membership and fundraising.

If the NRA received money from Russian mobsters without knowing its origin, the organization could nonetheless be compelled to return the money or pay it as a fine. This may be more difficult than it sounds, because the investigators may have to prove that the money was expressly intended to be used to aid Trump or otherwise influence the campaign. Nonetheless, if the NRA has to pay a fine or return funds that have already been spent, it would have to use current and future funds for the purpose.

And, of course, in a worst-case scenario, the investigation may find that key members of its leadership were knowingly involved.

In the short run, the NRA’s political efforts may be curtailed. In my experience, though, the NRA’s strongest political asset is a network of ardent advocates for gun rights, and they will continue to have these views with or without the NRA. In the long run, either the NRA will recover or a similar group will become the “alpha” organization in this niche, such as the National Association for Gun Rights or Gun Owners of America — both currently positioned as less compromising than the NRA when it comes to gun control laws.

Implications for the Republican Party network

A key theme of this blog is that the real Democratic and Republican parties extend beyond the alphabet soup of formal party committees (RNC, DNC, NRSC, DSCC, NRCC, DCCC) and include their allied interest groups, media, Super PACS, and consultants. In this view, the NRA may not have the word “Republican” in its title, but it is a central player in the GOP coalition.

Whatever the outcome of the NRA investigation, it suggests that party networks may be more susceptible to infiltration than strong parties with key actors all under one organizational umbrella. The independent groups and actors that make up US parties may share a set of overlapping policy goals, but they also have distinct financial incentives to grow their organizations, earn profits, or make money as individuals.

A wealthy political organization or foreign power may be able to co-opt or infiltrate nodes in a distributed network to a far greater extent than if there were a single party organization that could weigh the risks and downsides of this collaboration on behalf of the entire party. Whatever the outcome of the NRA investigation, it seems plausible that if Russian plutocrats were seeking to influence one US interest group, they may have approached other groups and individuals as well.

To this point, the focus of the Trump-Russia investigation has, understandably, been on Donald Trump and his advisers during the campaign and transition, and in the White House. The key lesson of the NRA investigation is that Russian influence efforts likely extended to other elements of the Republican coalition, and these organizations may find themselves swept up in the Russia investigation. Foreign efforts to influence political parties are likely to continue, moreover, as long as Congress allows anonymous campaign influence by corporations to continue.

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