Pro-Confederate Birther Introduced Maria Butina’s Handler to NRA Chief
The unlikely union of the American gun-rights movement and Moscow starts with G. Kline Preston IV, a Tennessee attorney who says he’d like Vladimir Putin to run the U.S government.
The first American to introduce two of the major players at the heart of a shocking Russian spy scandal has such deep ties to Moscow that he has doubted Barack Obama’s American citizenship in the course of demonstrating his affinity for Vladimir Putin.
“As long as U.S. is electing foreign-born presidents,” tweeted Tennessee attorney G. Kline Preston IV in 2013, “I propose Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin.”
Two years later, at a rally featuring soon-to-be-President Donald Trump, Preston tweeted: “Donald Trump today in Nashville. He is a friend of Russia.” He wrote the message in Russian.
In other words, at the very beginning of what appears to be an audacious geopolitical gambit to pivot the American right in Moscow’s direction is a birther who has explicitly stated a preference for Vladimir Putin to run the United States of America. He’s also something of a Confederate enthusiast, according to his Facebook activity.
Preston’s offline activities mirror his social-media habits. He’s occasionally worked as a freelance elections observer for Russia, testifying about the fidelity and freedom of various Russian elections and bringing Moscow an American voice it can point to for legitimacy. And he’s brought officials to his home state of Tennessee to witness an American presidential election up close. Preston is also tied to Marsha Blackburn, a conservative congresswoman running for Senate in Tennessee.
It’s just a small indicator of Preston’s longstanding ties to Russia, and in particular to Alexander Torshin.
Torshin, a former Russian parliamentarian now under Treasury Department sanctions, is a friend and confidant of Preston, who has described Torshin as a client. In 2011, according to multiple accounts, Preston introduced Torshin to David Keene, then the president of the National Rifle Association. (Torshin “was interested in the NRA so I hooked him up,” Preston told The Tennessean earlier this year.) It’s the first known contact between the NRA and the Russians, and it wouldn’t be the last.
Preston’s ties to Torshin are particularly significant now that a Torshin protégé is accused of infiltrating the NRA to tilt the supremely influential lobby group in a pro-Russian direction—and with it, the Republican Party.
Last week, federal prosecutors charged Maria Butina, a Russian national who made inroads to the U.S. right through a stated love of guns, with being an unregistered Russian agent, tight with Russian intelligence, who traded sex for influence in American right-of-center circles. A figure matching Torshin’s description is listed in court documents only as a “Russian Official.”
Butina, working with Torshin, spent years cozying up to American conservatives to sell them on Russia as a natural ally for the American right. Preston was there first.
Preston studied in Russia as an undergraduate and speaks the language fluently, according to a 2002 article in the Nashville Business Journal. His Facebook page says he studied at Leningrad State University. According to his LinkedIn page, Preston has 20 years of experience doing business with Russia. The page also boasts that he gave a speech to the Russian Duma in 2009 and that he is an expert on Russian copyright issues. Indeed, Preston even published a 2008 book on Russian copyright law and represented the Russian pop singer Sergey Lazarev in a licensing dispute over his song “Almost Sorry.”
A cached version of Preston’s law office’s website boasts of extensive work with Russian clients. He claims to have organized a “visit, participation and conference for Russian Government Officials to attend the annual meeting of the National Rifle Association.”
The cached site also claims that he organized “private communications, conferences and physical observations for Russian Government Officials to review and analyze the operations of private-prison industry founder and leader Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) as part of a Russian Government study on the feasibility of implementing private prisons in the Russian Federation.”
Preston also claims to have provided legal analysis for an unnamed “U.S.- based investment fund for [a] real-estate development project in the Russian Federation.”
Preston has a longstanding relationship with Rep. Marsha Blackburn, the Tennessee Republican running for the U.S. Senate. Preston represented her in 2005 and provided legal advice to her campaign in 2007, according to The Tennessean. He told the paper in March that he and Blackburn are “family friends.” The liberal site Think Progress reported that Preston started working for Blackburn in 2003 and was working with her as recently as 2014.
Reached for comment for this story, a spokesperson for Blackburn referred The Daily Beast to her response to The Tennessean.
“Congressman Blackburn believes Russia is not our friend—and thinks we need to treat Russia like any bully: We need to be strong enough to prevent them from pushing the United States and our allies around, and we need to draw firm lines and show them that America is not to be trifled with.”
Preston told The Daily Beast he would “respond to written questions” and then did not.
Accordingly, it’s unclear how Preston linked up with Torshin before linking the Russian to Keene. The Washington Post reported that Preston first brokered an introduction between Torshin and Keene in 2011, the same year that Preston traveled to Russia to observe legislative elections there. Preston recounted the introduction to Rolling Stone, as well. “I told [Keene], ‘Hey, I got a friend who is interested in the NRA, gun rights, that kind of stuff. Happens to be a Russian senator.’” He told The Tennessean in March that Torshin “had and has a legitimate interest in the NRA and he’s not anti-American in any way.”
An associate of Keene’s told The Daily Beast he was “out of cellphone range” on a fly-fishing trip and unreachable for comment.
Echoing Trump, Preston told the paper that allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 election, presented by multiple U.S. intelligence agencies and detailed in two indictments of Russian nationals by special counsel Robert Mueller, are a “witch hunt.”
In his self-published 2012 book, The Art of Gettin’ Paid, Preston references business ventures in Russia there stretching back decades. (His private Twitter handle, @gittinpaid, references the book.) He claims in the book to have financed his law degree by importing a Ukrainian vodka.
“I witnessed an economic disaster much worse than this in Russia and Ukraine immediately after the fall of the Soviet Union,” Preston wrote. “We are nowhere near that time or economy, but the lessons in business that I learned in Russia and Ukraine in the early 1990s are applicable today here in the United States.”
That year, Preston took Torshin on an unusual trip to Tennessee to witness the vote for the presidential election. Accompanying them was Igor A. Matveev, a Russian diplomat, formerly assigned to the Russian embassy in Washington. Matveev has since been posted to Syria. A photo Torshin tweeted shows him standing on line at a polling place; Preston is behind him.
Unusual as the visit was, it was also something of a reciprocal exchange. Preston observed the Russian parliamentary elections in 2011 and 2016 as well as the presidential elections in 2012. He pronounced the 2011 parliamentary vote free and fair. By contrast, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) found that the “lack of independence of the election administration, the partiality of most media, and the undue interference of state authorities at different levels” failed to provide the “necessary conditions for fair electoral competition.” A 2011 book Preston wrote about the Russian vote carried the subtitle “The Case Against Western Media Bias and Prejudice.”
Later that same year, Preston was in Russia to discuss the parliamentary elections and lamented to an interviewer that he was at a loss for then-Prime Minister Putin’s poor American reputation. “Maybe because he’s a strong leader. Maybe because he’s done a pretty effective job in Russia, first as president and now as prime minister... I’ve seen improvements in Russia under Putin, myself. I don’t see why the United States & a lot of other countries are opposed to him.”
He’s since been back to observe additional Russian elections, most recently in March, according to The Tennessean. And according to NPR’s Tim Mak, Preston declared the voting in Russian-occupied Crimea during the most recent presidential elections to be aboveboard. (For its part, the OSCE, the gold standard for election monitoring, declared the presidential election a “choice without competition” and noted the vote “took place in an overly controlled environment, marked by continued pressure on critical voices.”)
In 2015, Torshin and Preston attended an NRA convention in Nashville that featured a Trump appearance. When The Tennessean asked if Torshin met Trump there, Preston said he “may have” but didn’t know for certain. “Trump shook hands with a lot of people,” Preston told the paper.
Preston’s fondness for the Russian electoral process has not gone unrequited. On his law firm’s website, Preston wrote that he has received the Russian Federation Council’s “Order of the Russian Nation for his contributions to Russian-American relations” as well as the “Nikolai Girenko Award for his contributions to Russian Civil Law.”
All the while, Preston continued to press Moscow’s case. To Think Progress, he’s proclaimed that Putin is “God-sent.” On Facebook, he’s shared propagandistic imagery showing Russian-backed paramilitary forces in the Donbass region of Ukraine. He’s also shared and liked imagery of the Confederate flag, other pro-Confederate propaganda—a different tweet referred to the Civil War as the “War for Southern Independence”—and a now-deleted video purportedly showing Obama “bashing” Jesus Christ. He liked a 2015 Facebook picture Butina posted of her and Torshin. Preston’s Art of Gettin’ Paid book features a famous quotation from Confederate general and Ku Klux Klan leader Nathan Bedford Forrest, a Tennessean.
For good measure, Preston posted a picture of Putin beside a white horse receiving a snuggle from an enthusiastic dog.