The chairwoman of the Federal Election Commission said Friday she supported investigating possible Russian funding for the National Rifle Association based solely on an anonymously-sourced McClatchy article.
McClatchy published the article Jan.18, 2018. Reporters Greg Gordon and Peter Stone reported the FBI was investigating whether Alexander Torshin, the former deputy governor of Russia’s central bank, had funneled millions of dollars to the NRA in order to help the Trump campaign.
Fusion GPS founder Glenn Simpson made a similar allegation in a December 2016 meeting with Justice Department official Bruce Ohr, according to FBI documents released earlier this month.
In a statement released Friday, FEC Chairwoman Ellen Weintraub, a Democrat, took her Republican colleagues to task for voting to shut down an inquiry into whether Torshin sent millions to the NRA.
“This is an abandonment of the Commission’s basic duty to investigate wrongdoing, and is contrary to law,” said Weintraub.
On July 9, the FEC’s four commissioners voted along party lines, 2-2, to dismiss a complaint against the NRA, Torshin, and his associate Maria Butina.
In her letter, Weintraub said her support for the investigation rested solely on the McClatchy article.
The American Democracy Legal Fund, a liberal watchdog group, filed a complaint with the FEC on Jan. 31, 2018 citing the article.
The NRA responded to the complaint, denying Torshin or Butina funneled money to the group. Torshin and Butina did establish contacts with NRA officials, and Torshin paid $1,000 in 2012 for the title of NRA lifetime member. Butina purchased a $520 necklace at an NRA event, the group’s attorneys said.
NRA officials also acknowledged Butina pleaded guilty to acting as an unregistered foreign agent. The 30-year-old Russian national admitted to trying to make inroads to conservative groups, and to reporting back to Torshin. But the NRA denied the two Russians, or any others, gave it large sums of money, or that they had any influence on the NRA’s political activities.
The FEC’s office of legal counsel on May 28 recommended dismissing the complaint, saying that “the available information does not support a finding of reason to believe with respect to the alleged violations of federal campaign finance law.”
“The allegations in the Complaint are premised on a vague news article reporting that the Federal Bureau of Investigation (‘FBI’) is investigating whether Torshin may have funneled money to the NRA, but without providing any specifics,” reads a May 28 report signed by Lisa Stevenson, who has served as the FEC’s acting general counsel since September 2016.
Despite the assessment from career FEC lawyers, Weintrub insisted that Republicans had shut down “one of the most blockbuster campaign finance allegations in recent memory.”
Weintraub also said in her letter that her support for an investigation was based entirely on the McClatchy article, even though she acknowledged the story contained “few details on the alleged funneling.”
“The complaint’s use of this article alone justified my vote to find reason to believe a violation of the Act may have occurred,” she wrote.
“I considered McClatchy’s credible and unrefuted reporting that such an investigation existed to be enough to find [reason to believe] and authorize our own investigation,” she added.
Weintraub did not acknowledge that the same McClatchy reporters have published other stories pushing forward the now-debunked theory that the Trump campaign conspired with Russia. She also did not acknowledge that Fusion GPS peddled the Torshin-NRA conspiracy theory during the 2016 presidential campaign.
On April 14, 2018 and Dec. 27, 2018, Gordon and Stone reported the special counsel’s office had evidence Michael Cohen’s cell phone pinged off a tower near Prague during the 2016 campaign. The reports, if accurate, would bolster the Steele dossier’s most direct allegation of collusion. Christopher Steele, the former British spy who wrote the dossier, claimed Cohen visited Prague to meet with Russian operatives to discuss paying off hackers.
As with the Torshin-NRA story, the initial McClatchy piece cited two anonymous sources familiar with purported evidence provided to federal investigators.
But the stories have been all but debunked in the wake of the special counsel’s report. The special counsel cited Cohen’s denial that he had ever visited Prague. Cohen also vehemently denied all of the dossier’s claims about him during an interview with the House Intelligence Committee on Feb. 28.
McClatchy has added editor’s notes to Gordon and Stone’s two articles, noting the special counsel’s findings.
Stone and Gordon published another uncorroborated story alleging possible Russia-related misdeeds that was also based on information from two anonymous sources.
On March 20, 2017, they reported that the FBI was looking at whether conservative websites like Breitbart and InfoWars played any role in the Russia cyber operation. The report offered no evidence that either website was working with Russians. Instead, as with the NRA-Torshin story and others published by McClatchy, the so-called news hook was the alleged existence of an investigation.
The special counsel’s findings also seem to undercut that report. According to the special counsel’s report, prosecutors found no evidence that any Americans helped the Russian meddling effort.
Glenn Simpson, who hired Steele and investigated the Trump campaign on behalf of the DNC and Clinton campaign, is the first person known to have floated the claim that Torshin funneled millions to the NRA.
On Dec. 10, 2016, Simpson told Bruce Ohr, a Justice Department official whose wife worked as a contractor for Fusion GPS, that Torshin “may have funneled Russian money to the National Rifle Association (NRA) to use in support of Trump.”
“An NRA lawyer, [redacted] found out about the money pipeline and was very upset, but the election was over by the time she learned of it. Simpson stated there are pictures or [sic] Torshin and Trump,” read FBI notes from an interview with Ohr.
In addition to its Torshin report, McClatchy also published a story about the NRA lawyer Simpson referenced to Ohr.
On March 15, 2018, Gordon and Stone reported conservative lawyer Cleta Mitchell had learned after the election that Torshin funneled money to the NRA. The story originally said that Mitchell was an NRA lawyer.
But Mitchell shot back, adamantly denying that she ever had any concerns about Russian help for the NRA. She also noted she was not a lawyer for the NRA, and had not been affiliated with the group since 2012. She has told The Daily Caller News Foundation she believed Fusion GPS was involved in planting the story about her with McClatchy.
McClatchy and Fusion GPS have not commented on whether they worked together on any of the stories. Weintraub also did not respond to a request for comment.
As part of its investigation of Trump and Russia, Fusion GPS has worked closely with reporters to seed stories alleging collusion between Trump associates and Russia.
Simpson arranged meetings before the 2016 election between Steele and numerous reporters. One of those journalists was Michael Isikoff, who reported on Sept. 23, 2016 that U.S. officials were investigating contacts that then-Trump campaign adviser Carter Page had with two Kremlin insiders. Steele alleged in his dossier that Page was part of the Trump campaign’s “well-developed conspiracy of co-operation” with the Kremlin.
After Trump’s election victory, Fusion GPS and Steele began working with a non-profit group called The Democracy Integrity Project (TDIP).
Daniel Jones, the TDIP founder, told the FBI during a March 2017 interview that he had received $50 million in funding from a small group of New York and California billionaires to continue an investigation into Russian meddling and Trump.
Jones said that one task for his group was to provide information to lawmakers, law enforcement agencies, and the media. Jones has not responded to questions about whether he had contacts with McClatchy.
TDIP paid Fusion GPS more than $3.3 million in 2017. The group paid Steele another $250,000.
– – –
Chuck Ross is a reporter for the Daily Caller News Foundation.
Photo “Ellen Weintraub” by OSCE Parliamentary Assembly. CC BY-SA 2.0