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We're going to take a good look now at a Russian politician who's been trying to connect with conservative political groups in the U.S. His name is Alexander Torshin. The Treasury Department placed him under sanction in April. Before that, he had made many trips to the U.S. to meet with conservative leaders, including those with the National Rifle Association. NPR political reporter Tim Mak has been investigating Torshin, and he joins us now. Welcome to the studio.
TIM MAK, BYLINE: Thank you.
CORNISH: So give us a little bit more background on Alexander Torshin.
MAK: So Mr. Torshin was sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department last month as part of a larger group of Kremlin-connected figures and companies which have engaged in activities against the United States. So that's really put a spotlight on him. He's a Kremlin-linked Russian politician. He's a former Russian senator. And he was later appointed to become the deputy governor of Russia's Central Bank.
Over the years, he also appears to have developed a close relationship with David Keene, who is a former NRA president and the former president of the American Conservative Union. And he also said he met with Donald Trump through the NRA at their convention in 2015, though the White House has denied this.
CORNISH: So Torshin traveled throughout the U.S. for many years. What more have you learned about where he went or why?
MAK: So reporting by NPR has shown that he has traveled to the United States as early as 2009 when he requested a meeting with Sarah Palin in Alaska through the Russian ambassador to the United States. She was governor of Alaska at the time.
CORNISH: And of course she had been John McCain's running mate in the presidential election just the year before. Is there any connection to her?
MAK: Well, she actually ended up declining that meeting invitation. But the most important thing here is that he requested it, that years before what we understand to be Russian interference in the 2016 election there were these influence operations that the Russians were possibly trying to conduct in the United States. For example, public records that NPR has obtained also show Torshin traveling to Nashville in 2012 with a Russian diplomat. And they were election observers.
His pace of travels to the United States picks up from there. He visits D.C. multiple times for the National Prayer Breakfast. And he attends the NRA conventions between 2012 and 2016. So he visits St. Louis, Houston, Indianapolis, Nashville, Louisville. And he really just expands and tries to build on his ties between the National Rifle Association and gun rights activists in Russia. And he - so now he's kind of the central figure around the NRA's alleged links to Russia, although the NRA denies any wrongdoing.
CORNISH: So how does his story fit into the broader context of Russia's interference with the 2016 presidential election?
MAK: I think the thing to remember here is that Russia's malign influence in the United States, it extends beyond just interfering in elections like they did in 2016 by sowing chaos. It also involves influence operations by figures like Torshin. And those who have expertise in Russian influence operations look at these facts that we've reported out about Torshin, and they believe, hey, this really looks like the work of Russian intelligence. Here's the former CIA chief of Russian operations, Steve Hall.
STEVE HALL: They reach to - they reach out to a guy like Torshin and say, hey, can you make contact with the NRA and some other conservatives so that we can have our hand in that pot, so that we can have connectivity from Moscow into those conservative parts of American politics should we need them?
CORNISH: OK. As we mentioned, Torshin has now been sanctioned by the U.S. government. What does that mean in terms of his ability to travel in the U.S., do his work or even further more Russia's ability to influence U.S. politics?
MAK: So now that he's been sanctioned, he can't travel to the United States anymore. Any assets he has in the United States will be seized. And companies that do business in the U.S. will be hesitant to be involved with him. Basically, he's radioactive. And so after years of building relationships with figures on the American right, he can't continue those links. As for future influence operations, U.S. intelligence officials say they expect Russian influence operations to continue through this year, through the midterms and beyond.
But the question they can't answer right now is exactly how the Russians might try to wield influence in the United States. Certainly you can't use the deputy governor of the Bank of Russia to build links with American political figures anymore. So the path forward is going to be a little unclear.
CORNISH: That's NPR political reporter Tim Mak. Thank you.
MAK: Thanks a lot.
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