A former NRA president hoped to win access to Vladimir Putin on a trip to Moscow, according to an email from one of the trip’s organizers. That organizer, Republican operative Paul Erickson, also said the trip could have “enormous diplomatic consequences.” The email, sent in November 2015 and reviewed by The Daily Beast, came just months before the Kremlin’s election meddling went into full gear.
In the email, Erickson wrote that an official with the Russian Central Bank had made a tantalizing, though tentative, offer to former NRA president David Keene: an interview for his newspaper with Russian President Vladimir Putin. At the time, Keene was the opinion editor for The Washington Times, a conservative newspaper. He had previously helmed the NRA, and he maintained close ties with its top officials. And he was one of the small group of people on the trip.
“[I]mpressing the NRA’s Russian hosts is also the quickest way to secure a private interview with President Putin on behalf of David Keene and the Washington Times–a plum that was dangled in front of Keene by Torshin himself during a recent Torshin visit to Washington, DC,” Erickson wrote. “High stakes all around.”
The NRA’s Russian hosts were a powerful group. Alexander Torshin, who Erickson said had tentatively offered Keene a Putin interview, was a deputy governor at Russia’s powerful central bank at the time. Justice Department prosecutors later alluded to him when they charged Erickson’s girlfriend, Russian gun rights activist Maria Butina, with conspiring to act as an unregistered foreign agent in the U.S. Butina pleaded guilty to the charge last month. Her organization, called The Right to Bear Arms, had helped organize the trip Keene went on.
The NRA officials on the trip also met with Dmitry Rogozin, a Putin deputy and prominent figure in the Russian defense industry who is under U.S. sanctions. And they met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, according to The Washington Post.
The Erickson email, which has not been previously quoted, indicates that the NRA officials on the Moscow trip believed they were meeting with Kremlin power players who could influence the country’s president. The existence of this email was first reported by The New York Times.
Erickson’s email also said the trip could help ease relations between Russia and the U.S. by creating a way for the Kremlin to connect with a future Republican president.
“As we discussed over lunch in Iowa, Russia believes that high level contacts with the NRA might be the BEST means of neutral introduction to either the next American President OR to a meaningful re-set in relations with the Congress under a (God forbid) President Clinton,” he wrote. “This simple good will trip would have enormous diplomatic consequences for a future U.S. / Russia bilateral relationship to the world.”
The email also described tensions that emerged before the trip between two NRA power-brokers: David Keene, the NRA’s president from 2011 to 2013; and Allan Cors, its president at the time of the trip. Cors initially planned to go on the trip, which Keene and Butina helped organize. But a few weeks before departure, he abruptly bowed out. In the email, Erickson said Cors cited health problems as the reason for his cancellation. According to Erickson, that enraged Keene.
“As you know from your discussions with Maria Butina, she and Russian Central Bank Deputy Governor Alexander Torshin (but mostly Maria) have been slaving away for several months preparing a truly ‘Nixon goes to China’ itinerary for a senior NRA delegation to Moscow next month,” Erickson wrote. “This has been a dream and happy burden for David Keene for a couple of years. JUST as the agenda was being finalized this week, President Cors announces–VERY privately–to David that a chronic health issue must now force Cors to abandon the trip.”
According to Erickson, Keene felt betrayed by Cors’ claims of health problems.
“This has caught Keene totally off guard and could have disastrous consequences for the trip—and for our young Maria and the future of her ‘The Right to Bear Arms’ organization,” Erickson continued. “Keene is so angry that he is close to ending his friendship with Cors over what Keene views as Cors’ duplicity in keeping this health information from the powers that be.”
But now, Cors contradicts the story Erickson described in that email. In a statement the NRA’s lawyer provided to The Daily Beast on his behalf, Cors said he pulled out of the trip because he was worried it would reflect poorly on the NRA. The statement, part of which was in the Times story, said nothing about any health problems.
“When we spoke, [NRA CEO] Wayne [LaPierre] expressed concerns about this trip and suggested that I not participate,” Cors said in the statement. “I was, at the time, president of the NRA and Wayne did not want any misconception that this was an official trip. Frankly, I had similar concerns. Therefore, I gracefully bowed out.”
The NRA lawyer also told The Daily Beast that the group did not formally sanction the trip and that its CEO expressed concerns about it.
“When he became aware of the details of the trip, [NRA CEO] Wayne [LaPierre] was personally opposed to it,” William A. Brewer III, an attorney for the NRA, said in a statement provided to The Daily Beast. “In order that the group was not viewed as representing the NRA, Wayne spoke with several people about the excursion. As a result, Mr. Cors agreed not to make the trip. In addition, NRA staff members who were in Israel (for a trip that preceded the visit to Russia) returned home.”
An attorney for Butina declined to comment. Keene did not respond to requests for comment. Kors did not respond to requests for comment on Erickson’s email. A lawyer for Erickson noted that he did not go on the trip and declined to comment further.
That trip ran from Dec. 8 through 13 of 2015. According to a trip itinerary reviewed by The Daily Beast, Butina and her assistant arranged for attendees to see Yuri Grigorovich’s ballet “A Legend of Love” at the Bolshoi Theatre. They also arranged for a trip to “Stalin’s Bunker,” a secret soviet facility that is now open to visitors; the Armory Chamber and Diamond Treasury of the Kremlin; and Red Square. Also on the agenda: a meeting with Evgeny Lukyanov, at the time a member of the Kremlin’s national security council. Months before the trip, he announced Russia’s sale of S-300 missile systems to Iran. It was one of the trip’s little ironies; before arriving on Moscow on the same journey, the attendees stopped in Israel—whose government was appalled by the S-300 sale to Iran.
David Clarke, the conspiratorial former Milwaukee County sheriff who once claimed Black Lives Matter would team up with ISIS, also went on the trip, along with other influential NRA donors and board members.
The trip has drawn the attention of investigators. Federal prosecutors in Washington, D.C. told Erickson’s attorney several months ago that they were considering charging him for illegally acting as a covert agent of a foreign government, under a statute Justice Department lawyers refer to as “espionage-lite.” Butina is in jail awaiting sentencing and has agreed to cooperate with federal investigators. Meanwhile, the Senate intelligence committee is scrutinizing the NRA’s Russia connections as part of a wide-ranging, bipartisan probe into Russian efforts to influence the 2016 presidential elections in the U.S. And Sen. Ron Wyden, the top Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee, is also scrutinizing the trip.
“I can’t discuss what I’ve learned through my investigation at this point,” he told The Daily Beast when asked about the email. “Americans would rightly be outraged if they learned that officers of a powerful, taxpayer-subsidized organization were offered personal incentives by the Kremlin in exchange for access to elite Republican circles. That question is right at the heart of my inquiry.”
Butina’s outreach to the American gun rights community began years ago. She met Erickson in Moscow in 2013, her lawyer has said. The two began a romance. Erickson, who is in his late fifties, had spent his adult life developing connections throughout the conservative movement. For a time, he was on the board of the American Conservative Union, which hosts the most prominent annual conference for conservatives. And he was particularly active in the gun rights space, developing close relationships with people at the upper echelons of the NRA. He also undertook a number of business endeavors—some ending with accusations of fraud—and even helped produce Dolph Lundgren’s anti-communist film Red Scorpion. Jack Abramoff, the disgraced ex-lobbyist who did time in prison for his illegal escapades during the Bush administration, was also involved in making the film.
Butina, meanwhile, came to the United States on a student visa in 2016 and studied at American University in Washington, D.C. Her effort to warm bilateral relations between the U.S. and Russia began with great success, as she charmed conservative power-brokers and questioned then-candidate Donald Trump about sanctions policy.
She and Erickson were open about their relationship, and wore a couple’s costume to one party: she as a Russian empress, he as Rasputin.
—with additional reporting by Spencer Ackerman