ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
A new report from Senate Democrats tells us more about the relationship between the National Rifle Association and Russia leading up to the 2016 elections. It says the NRA was, quote, "a foreign asset to Moscow." That conclusion raises questions about the organization's tax-exempt status. NPR's Tim Mak was one of the first to see this report. And he is here in the studio.
TIM MAK, BYLINE: Hey, there.
SHAPIRO: What does foreign asset mean in this context? What did the NRA do according to this report?
MAK: Well, according to this report, they facilitated access for two Russian nationals named Maria Butina and Alexander Torshin.
SHAPIRO: They've been in the news a lot. Maria Butina is currently in prison. Alexander Torshin was her boss. What did the NRA do?
MAK: What we're talking about here is taking a look at the mission of Maria Butina and Alexander Torshin. What were they trying to do in the United States? And they were trying to expand their influence at the behest of the Russian government. And how did the NRA play a role? They helped facilitate Maria Butina and Alexander Torshin's access to numerous events and organizations in the United States. They helped pay for their travel at times to some of these events and organizations. And they supported them by connecting them to various political figures throughout the country.
SHAPIRO: And key to this report is the assertion that the NRA knew at the time that Maria Butina and Alexander Torshin were working on behalf of the Kremlin.
MAK: Right. The report shows that Maria Butina and Alexander Torshin were not shy about saying that they had links with the Kremlin and that folks in the NRA were aware of this link and simply did not find that to be important.
SHAPIRO: One of the central events in this report is a trip to Moscow that some NRA officials took. Tell us about it.
MAK: Well, so there was this trip back in 2015. And the NRA has maintained for a very long time that this was not an NRA delegation, that it was just some NRA figures happened to go on this trip. But the interviews done by the committee show that the NRA was intimately involved in organizing the trip, preparing travel visas, preparing briefing documents.
SHAPIRO: So it wasn't just individuals. It was the organization.
MAK: The organization was part of the planning and execution of the trip from beginning to end.
SHAPIRO: Does that create legal problems for the National Rifle Association, which is a tax-exempt organization?
MAK: It may, especially since a lot of the folks who went on that trip to Russia, these emails show that a primary reason that they went was to benefit their own private businesses unrelated to the National Rifle Association.
SHAPIRO: How would that play out? Like, what would the process be?
MAK: The reason why it would be a threat to the National Rifle Association is that it is a tax-exempt organization. And tax-exempt organizations are not allowed to use their resources to the personal benefit of its officials. And it's not allowed to use its funds to do things well outside its stated goals. And it's not clear what a trip to Russia for the personal private business interests of NRA figures would have to do with the tax-exempt mission of the National Rifle Association.
SHAPIRO: This report was led by Democratic Senator Ron Wyden. It was written by the Democrats on the Senate Finance Committee. What are the Republicans saying?
MAK: Well, they think this is totally overblown, that Democrats on the committee have taken emails and interviews and made a much bigger deal of the facts than what the facts will ultimately allow in the big picture. And they also say that, you know, we're talking thousands of dollars here. And the National Rifle Association is an organization that takes in hundreds of millions of dollars every year in revenue, so this is a very small issue, and that the NRA's tax-exempt status is not at risk here because this is a small thing in a larger context.
SHAPIRO: Any response from the NRA today?
MAK: So the NRA has said that this is a politically motivated and contrived narrative, that this report today is being done to embarrass the National Rifle Association. William Brewer - he's the counsel to the NRA - he said that the report goes to great lengths to, quote, "try to involve the NRA in activities of private individuals and create the false impression that the NRA did not act appropriately. Nothing could be further from the truth." That's what the lawyer for the NRA said. And it's also worth noting that the NRA is continuing to insist, despite the evidence that the committee has put together, that the trip to Moscow was not an official NRA trip.
SHAPIRO: NPR's Tim Mak. Thank you.
MAK: Thanks a lot.
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