Mueller is said to be probing the Trump campaign's ties to the NRA during the 2016 election

trump nraThen-Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump addresses members of the National Rifle Association's during their NRA-ILA Leadership Forum during their annual meeting in Louisville, Kentucky on May 20, 2016.REUTERS/John Sommers II

  • The special counsel Robert Mueller is said to be interested in the relationship between President Donald Trump's campaign and the National Rifle Association.
  • The FBI has long been investigating whether Russia used the NRA as a conduit to illegally funnel money into Trump's campaign during the 2016 election.
  • But this is the first indication that Mueller, who is tasked with investigating whether the Trump team colluded with Moscow, is also interested in the connection between Trump, the NRA, and Russia.
  • CNN reported that Mueller's team raised questions about the topic as recently as last month.
  • Two figures - the Russian banker Alexander Torshin and his longtime assistant, Maria Butina - appear to be at the center of the investigation.

The special counsel Robert Mueller is investigating the relationship between President Donald Trump's campaign and the National Rifle Association, CNN reported Tuesday.

Mueller is said to be focused on the links between the two around the time of the 2016 election. The former Trump campaign aide Sam Nunberg told CNN prosecutors asked him about the campaign's "dealings with the NRA" when they interviewed him last year.

Nunberg added that prosecutors wanted to know more about how Trump and his associates first formed a relationship to the gun-rights group and how Trump was tapped to speak at the NRA's annual convention in 2015, just months before announcing his presidential bid.

Mueller's team interviewed Nunberg in February 2018, but CNN reported that prosecutors were asking questions about the topic as recently as last month.

The NRA has long been under heightened scrutiny for its Russia ties, particularly involving Alexander Torshin, a powerful Russian politician and banker, and Maria Butina, an accused Russian spy who pleaded guilty to conspiring against the US.

Torshin, whom the Spanish government has accused of money laundering and other financial crimes, is an avid gun-rights activist and a paid lifetime member of the NRA. Butina is his longtime assistant and close associate. She also spearheads the Russian gun-rights group A Right To Bear Arms, which is viewed as the NRA's Russian counterpart.

Last January, McClatchy reported that the FBI is investigating whether Torshin illegally funneled money to the NRA to help sway the 2016 US election in favor of then-candidate Trump. It also surfaced last year that the Spanish police had handed over surveillance tapes featuring Torshin to the FBI.

But CNN's report Tuesday is the first indication that Mueller is also interested in the links between the campaign, the NRA, and Russia-linked individuals like Torshin and Butina.

Read more: A bombshell report says Trump ordered Michael Cohen to lie to Congress about the Trump Tower Moscow deal

donald trump nraU.S. President Donald Trump delivers remarks at the National Rifle Association (NRA) Leadership Forum at the Georgia World Congress Center in Atlanta, Georgia, U.S. April 28, 2017.Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

Trump has repeatedly said that neither he nor his campaign colluded with Moscow. The Trump administration also denied in 2017 that Trump had ever met Torshin.

But a number of tweets sent from Torshin's Twitter account, which NPR reviewed in depth, appear to indicate otherwise.

In one tweet sent on November 8, 2015, Torshin wrote, according to an English translation: "Comedian should make people laugh! Right? So he is trying! I know D. Trump (through NRA). A decent person." Torshin sent the tweet in response to when the comedian Larry David called Trump a racist on "Saturday Night Live."

Torshin later added that he saw Trump in Nashville, Tennessee, in April 2015, NPR reported. The NRA held its annual convention in Nashville that year, during which Trump gave a speech teasing his impending presidential bid.

"If I run, and people are going to be very surprised, and if I win, America will be great again," Trump told the approving crowd, which included Torshin and Butina.

Torshin attended the NRA's convention every year between 2012 and 2016, occasionally with Butina at his side, and has met every NRA president since 2012, according to NPR. When the NRA sent a delegation to Moscow in the winter of 2015, it was Torshin who received them on behalf of The Right to Bear Arms.

Read more: The NRA is at the center of a brewing controversy over its ties to conservatives' 'favorite Russian'

maria butinaMaria Butina.Facebook/Maria Butina

Butina, meanwhile, has been cultivating her own ties with American gun-rights activists, like Republican strategist Paul Erickson, whom she has been acquainted with since at least 2013.

Erickson invited scrutiny last year, when The New York Times reported that he emailed Trump campaign aide Rick Dearborn in May 2016, with the subject line "Kremlin Connection," telling him that he could arrange a backdoor meeting between Trump and Putin.

Butina made a similar request through Rick Clay, a conservative Christian advocate. Dearborn forwarded Clay's email to then-senior adviser Jared Kushner, who reportedly rebuffed the offer.

Torshin was the individual designated to make "first contact" with Trump from Russia's side. Erickson described him in his email as "President Putin's emissary on this front."

Erickson wrote that Torshin would make "first contact" with the campaign at a dinner honoring wounded veterans that was organized by Clay, the report said. Neither Trump nor his campaign advisers attended the reception. Trump Jr. and Torshin did, however, attend a separate NRA dinner the same night.

About six months later, Butina had a birthday party on November 12, 2016, four days after Trump won the US election in a shocking upset. The gathering featured several top Trump campaign advisers, according to The Daily Beast. Erickson, who was also in attendance, reportedly told guests Butina was on the Trump transition team.

Two months later, Butina was one of several Putin-allied Russians who attended Trump's inaugural celebrations.

In February 2017, Torshin was invited, through his NRA ties, to a national prayer breakfast with the newly-inaugurated President Trump. According to Yahoo News, Torshin was supposed to have a personal meeting with Trump before the event, but his invitation was rescinded after a White House aide spotted his name on the guest list and alerted others to Torshin's alleged illicit activities.

The GOP's ideological progression toward Putin's Russia is not a new phenomenon. Over the last several years in particular, self-identified conservatives and members of the alt-right have openly embraced Russia's stance on key issues - such as gun rights, religion, and same-sex marriage - that make up the bedrock of the Republican platform, and cultivated relationships with prominent Russians whose views align with their own.

This was, perhaps, part of why the gun-rights activist Kline Preston asked Torshin to come to the US and be an international election observer as President Barack Obama faced off against former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney in November 2012, according to The Washington Post.

Preston, a conservative lawyer with a long history of doing business in Russia, also introduced Torshin to NRA president David Keene in 2011.

Torshin later hinted that his NRA credentials had played a role in his participation in the 2012 election.

"I was there at Obama's last election!" Torshin tweeted in 2015, according to NPR. "The NRA card, to me as an observer from Russia, opened access to any [polling] station."

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