FBI’s NRA-Russia Probe Has an Iowa Connection, Too

Iowan and NRA President Pete Brownell visited Russia in 2015 to meet with a Russian pro-gun group connected to an oligarch who may have helped illegally fund the NRA's spending on behalf of Donald Trump's presidential campaign

NRA president and Iowa resident Pete Brownell, second from left, poses with former NRA President David Keene, second from right, and Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, far right, in December 2015. Photo: @Rogozin/Twitter

The FBI is investigating whether the National Rifle Association received illegal funds from a Russian oligarch associated with the Kremlin to help Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, according to two sources familiar with the investigation* who spoke to the news agency McClatchyDC. Among a slew of other details, McClatchyDC revealed that NRA board president Pete Brownell, owner of the Montezuma, Iowa-based firearms parts manufacturer Brownells Inc., traveled to Russia with other NRA officials in December 2015 to meet with a Russia pro-gun organization connected to the oligarch, Alexander Torshin.

The FBI’s investigation may be linked to Justice Department Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s grand jury investigation into possible collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign, which has already involved another Iowan, former Morningside College professor and former Trump foreign policy adviser Sam Clovis.

McClatchyDC’s article — which adds to previous details that have emerged suggesting a possible NRA connection to Russian election meddling — focuses primarily on Torshin, the deputy governor of Russia’s central bank who has close ties to the NRA and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Torshin is a lifetime NRA member who’s attended the gun group’s annual conventions and helped found a gun-rights organization of his own based in Moscow called Right to Bear Arms. In turn, Right to Bear Arms helped facilitate NRA trips to Russia; the two groups, according to a veteran US conservative operative, enjoyed a “moral support operation both ways.”

Related article: AP: Leath’s Passengers Included NRA Board Member for Outing with Mike Pence
Related article: AP: Leath’s Passengers Included NRA Board Member for Outing with Mike Pence

One of the trips, in December 2015, was led by then-NRA President David Keene, who reportedly played a key role in developing a relationship with Torshin. He was joined by other NRA members, including Brownell, “for a week of lavish meals and meetings with Russian business and political leaders” in Moscow, according to the article, that included a trip to a Russian gun manufacturer and visits with “a senior Kremlin official and wealthy Russians.” On the trip, Brownell was joined by others including NRA member David Clarke, the outspoken Trump booster and controversial former sheriff of Milwaukee County who was sued after a mentally ill inmate died of dehydration in his jail.

In the US, foreign funds like those Torshin may have provided the NRA cannot be legally used to influence federal elections. Adding to the intrigue, Torshin is linked to “Russian money laundering” and described as “a godfather in a major Russian criminal organization called Taganskaya,” according to McClatchyDC. Torshin has previously denied any ties to organized crime, but he is under investigation by Spanish authorities for allegedly laundering money with Alexander Romanov, a Russian who pleaded guilty to money-laundering in 2016.

The NRA dumped more money into the 2016 election than any other outside spending group — at least $55 million and, McClatchyDC reported, possibly upwards of $70 million accounting for undisclosed spending including internet ads and field work.

* Correction: This article initially said that McClatchyDC based its details of the FBI investigation on a summary of a confidential report it obtained. In fact, it received information about the investigation from two sources with knowledge of it; the summary was of an internal report by Spanish authorities investigating Torshin for alleged money laundering.

Gavin Aronsen
Gavin Aronsen is an editor and reporter for and founding member of the Iowa Informer. He previously worked as a city reporter for the Ames Tribune, research assistant to investigative journalist Wayne Barrett at the Village Voice, and in various roles at Mother Jones, where his work contributed to a National Magazine Award nomination for the magazine's digital media coverage of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Email: garonsen [at] iowainformer [dot] com.