On May 7, the National Rifle Association announced that Pete Brownell, CEO of the Iowa firearms accessories giant Brownells Inc., was stepping down as the gun-rights organization’s president, “in order to devote his full time and energy to his family business.”
This came as welcome news to some residents of Grinnell, where the company relocated its headquarters from nearby Montezuma in 2016, opening a new warehouse near the interstate at the urging of the city manager, who made a plea to keep the business local as it considered a move to a bigger city. For years, Brownell and his wife, Helen Redmond, a Democrat, had been major philanthropists in Grinnell and were generally well-liked. But with Brownell’s ascension to the NRA’s presidency in 2017, coupled with high-profile national tragedies like last October’s Route 91 Harvest music festival massacre in Las Vegas that left 58 dead and more than 800 others injured, there was growing discomfort locally, including heightened scrutiny over the sizeable donations the couple had made to the venerable private liberal arts college in town.
Elsewhere, the announcement that Brownell would step down was overshadowed by the NRA’s surprise decision to select Oliver North, the Reagan administration official indicted on 16 felony counts for his role in the Iran-Contra scandal who later re-emerged as a conservative celebrity, as its new president (NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre raved about the pick, calling it the most exciting since the actor Charlton Heston in 1998). But Brownell’s decision still undeniably stood out as odd: For the past 15 years, every NRA president had served two consecutive annual terms, yet his abrupt departure was announced almost exactly one year from the day he was elected.
The reason for Brownell’s early exit remains unclear. He hasn’t returned journalists’ calls about the matter, nor spoken to his neighbors in Grinnell about it, according to a recent article in the New York Times taking a long look at the town’s underlying political tensions. There are those who believe that this local strife was the primary reason Brownell chose to step down.
But the timing has also raised serious questions about whether his decision had something to do with an ongoing FBI investigation into a shady pro-gun group in Russia called The Right to Bear Arms, whose leaders have close ties to the NRA and invited a delegation that included Brownell to Moscow in December 2015. The trip hadn’t been a secret — photos were posted on social media at the time, primarily by Russian officials, including the one on the cover of this issue, which shows former NRA President David Keene, Brownell, and disgraced former Sheriff David Clarke — whose airfare and visa expenses for the trip Brownell covered to the tune of $14,000 — posing with Right to Bear Arms founders Alexander Torshin and Maria Butina. But in Iowa, Brownell’s involvement went largely unnoticed.
That began to change after Donald Trump was elected president and news slowly trickled out about the feds’ suspicions that Torshin — a politician and central banker with ties to the Russian mob who is close to President Vladimir Putin — may have illegally funneled money to the NRA, which spent $30 million in support of Trump in 2016, to help the organization influence the election. In January, the news agency McClatchyDC confirmed that the FBI was investigating Torshin in an article that mentioned Brownell and the 2015 trip. On that trip, the NRA delegation was hosted by Torshin at a Moscow hunting club along with the 27-year-old Butina, who the following year would arrive in the United States on a student visa to enroll in graduate school at American University in Washington DC and pursue a deceitful romantic relationship with Republican operative Paul Erickson.
In July, another shoe dropped in the FBI’s investigation when Butina, now 29, was indicted by a federal grand jury for allegedly conspiring to act as an unregistered foreign agent of the Russian government — in other words, for being a spy for Putin. An affidavit used as evidence in her arrest claimed she’d attempted to “exploit personal connections with US persons having influence in American politics in an effort to advance the interests of the Russian Federation.” On social media, photos began circulating again, including ones of Butina posing with prominent conservatives like Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and NRA officials, among them Brownell.
Both in Russia and Washington, Butina communicated regularly with Torshin, a mentor who himself had been making trips to the US since at least 2009 to build relationships with conservatives seen as likely to be sympathetic politically to the Kremlin. He visited Sarah Palin in Alaska, observed the 2012 election from Tennessee, and attended the annual National Prayer Breakfast in Washington on multiple occasions. A lifetime member of the NRA, Torshin also attended each of the organization’s annual conventions, held in various cities, from 2012 to 2016, when he met Donald Trump Jr. ahead of the presidential election. Butina made little secret of her connection to Torshin during this time, publicly tweeting to him in February 2016, for instance, that the elder Trump was “for cooperation with Russia” as her mentor worked his NRA ties to court presidential campaign officials.
The New Republic’s Jeet Heer recently compared the Trump-Russia affair to the Coen brothers’ black comedy Burn After Reading, in which two imbecilic gym employees discover what they believe is sensitive government information and attempt to sell it to the Russian embassy, setting in motion a disastrous chain of events as they are unwittingly surveilled by the CIA. “More than just a satire on espionage, the movie is a scathing critique of modern America as a superficial, post-political society where cheating of all sorts comes all too easily,” he wrote.
The FBI’s investigation is separate from Robert Mueller’s grand jury probe into collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia, but Heer’s observations were apparently true of Butina, as well. Her over-the-top flirtations are being used to bolster claims that she attempted to trade sex for access into political circles. (Update, 9/11: Prosecutors now say they were mistaken in claiming that Butina traded sex for access, saying they misinterpreted conversations.) And during her time at American University, she would get drunk and talk openly about her Russian government contacts — something concerning enough that at least two of her classmates reported the conversations to law enforcement.
In April, just weeks before Brownell stepped down as NRA president, the US Treasury Department sanctioned Torshin, identifying him as among “those who benefit from the Putin regime and play a key role in advancing Russia’s malign activities.” And, although it wasn’t made public at the time, later that month — just two weeks before the NRA’s announcement about Brownell — FBI agents raided Butina’s apartment, arresting her shortly before she was set to finish her graduate studies.
Writing for Mother Jones in early August, David Corn speculated that Butina’s arrest was likely the reason for the leadership shake-up at the NRA. Abandoning a decade-and-a-half-old succession tradition, the organization’s first vice president, Richard Childress, was passed over for Oliver North — a decision that surprised even North himself. “I didn’t expect this to be happening,” he told NRATV. “This was very sudden.”
Corn, like other journalists, was unable to get Brownell on the record about the unusual transition. (“He’s not taking calls,” a company receptionist told him when he sought an interview with the former NRA president.) The reason for Brownell’s reluctance to talk, Corn suggested, may be related to Butina’s arrest, coupled with his potential business interests in Moscow.
During the 2015 trip, when Brownell was first vice president, the NRA delegation also met with Dmitry Rogozin, the former head of the ultra-nationalist Rodina party who now directs Roscosmos, Putin’s space program. At the time, Rogozin was Russia’s deputy prime minister tasked with overseeing the country’s defense and space industries, including weapons production. (The year prior, the Obama administration sanctioned Rogozin in response to Putin’s attempted secession of Crimea from Ukraine.)
Joined by Butina, the delegation toured the headquarters of a private gun manufacturer called ORSIS, firing rifles at a shooting range there and learning about the company’s high-precision T-5000 sniper rifle, which a recent US Army report singled out as a threat to the troops (the rifle has been used in conflict zones in Iraq and Syria). They approvingly mentioned the rifle in a promotional video with Svetlana Nikolaeva, the president of ORSIS’ parent company, whose husband, Konstantin Nikolaev, helped finance Butina’s activities. “That is,” Corn wrote, “Brownell and the others, who had been escorted to the ORSIS offices by Butina, were helping ORSIS sell a rifle that worried US military planners.”
In July, Senate Democrats requested details from Brownell and six other prominent NRA figures about their 2015 trip to Moscow. But for now, the Grinnell firearms magnate has not been publicly implicated in any wrongdoing associated with the FBI’s investigation.
Meanwhile, Brownell continues to keep a low profile in his town, or try to. In February, just after a former student gunned down 17 people in the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School massacre in Florida — two and a half months before Brownell stepped down as NRA president and before the NRA-Russia probe really blew up — political tensions in the town were already capturing headlines far from Iowa.
In an article for the Britain-based tabloid website DailyMail.com, New York journalist Sheila Flynn described the “funeral vigils” that gun violence protesters were staging outside the Brownells headquarters. (The company has profited handsomely from the paranoia about regulatory crackdowns on gun rights following mass shootings — in 2012, after a gunman used an AR-15 style semi-automatic rifle to slaughter 26 people, including 20 children, at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, Brownell apologized to customers for delayed orders, informing them that his company had sold an “unprecedented” three and a half years worth of AR-15 magazines in just three days.) Flynn interviewed George Drake, a president emeritus of Grinnell College, who explained how the increased scrutiny of Brownell’s role with the NRA was taking a toll on the father of three. “It’s very hard for this community to be anti-Brownell, because it’s dependent on Brownell money,” Drake said. “Not dependent, but really, really wants it and uses it effectively.”
“I know from what people have said he’s been very shaken by the fact there are now strong anti-gun safety groups in town,” he added. “I think he’s having trouble handling the local pressure that he’s getting; for the first time in his life, he’s confronting things locally that obviously are upsetting to him.
“He’s a man with a conscience, I think.”
Last October, after the Las Vegas massacre, members of a Facebook group called Grinnellians for Change had a letter published in the local paper, the Herald-Register, requesting a conversation with Brownell. Signed by 170 people, the letter read, “Nowhere are mutuality and reciprocity more important than in a small town such as ours.”
Brownell did not respond then. Now, both he and the NRA are keeping quiet in the wake of Maria Butina’s arrest.