What the NRA’s Suspected Ties to a Gun-Loving Russian Billionaire Tell Us About Money in Politics

Donald Trump speaks at the National Rifle Association's NRA-ILA Leadership Forum during the NRA Convention at the Kentucky Exposition Center on May 20, 2016, in Louisville, Kentucky. (Photo: Scott Olson / Getty Images)Donald Trump speaks at the National Rifle Association’s (NRA) Leadership Forum during the NRA Convention at the Kentucky Exposition Center on May 20, 2016, in Louisville, Kentucky. (Photo: Scott Olson / Getty Images)

Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden expanded his probe into the National Rifle Association’s suspected financial ties to a colorful Russian oligarch this week with a letter requesting more information about how the NRA raises and spends political cash. Reporters learned in January that the FBI was looking into whether the Russian banker Aleksander Torshin had illegally used the NRA, a nonprofit group, to influence the 2016 elections.

It’s the kind of political drama that defines the Trump era, complete with a Russian billionaire with suspected mob ties who apparently loves guns. The NRA spent $30 million supporting Donald Trump and opposing Hillary Clinton in the last presidential race and has effectively halted federal gun reform in its tracks, so it’s no surprise that Democrats see a scandal and smell blood. However, as Wyden tells it in his latest letter demanding that the NRA cough up detailed internal records that would show whether foreign money was used to influence voters, it’s his job as a lawmaker to make sure current federal campaign finance laws provide “sufficient safeguards to protect the American political process from foreign influence.”

With the midterms fast approaching and voters fuming about the NRA’s overwhelming ability to influence politicians, could it be time to push for campaign finance reform once again?

Wyden knows a thing or two about money in politics. He championed bipartisan campaign finance reform legislation in the years following the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United ruling that opened the floodgates to unlimited corporate election spending. Billions of dollars were already flowing through Super-PACs and “dark money” nonprofits like the NRA. The legislation failed to attract enough support from fellow lawmakers, perhaps because many of them benefited from those dollars.

Now, with the midterms fast approaching and voters fuming about the NRA’s overwhelming ability to influence politicians, could it be time for Democrats like Wyden to push for campaign finance reform once again?

We don’t know whether the NRA has taken money from wealthy Russians, wealthy gun manufacturers or anyone else, for that matter. That’s because the group is a 501(c)4 nonprofit that is not required to reveal its large donors to the public. Behind this veil of secrecy, the organization spends huge amounts of money lobbying around legislation and supporting or opposing candidates for office. The NRA spent a whopping $54 million during the 2016 election season, when its spending surged behind Trump: The group outspent every other political nonprofit, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Back in 2013, Wyden and Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski proposed legislation that would have shed light on this so-called “dark money” by requiring any organization — including nonprofits like the NRA — that spends money influencing elections to publicly report its donors. At the time, Wyden and Murkowski argued that the “influx of unregulated political cash” spawned by the Citizens United decision had contributed to a “particularly vitriolic political cycle,” and increased transparency would discourage distasteful attack ads and damaging partisanship.

The NRA spent a whopping $54 million during the 2016 election season, when its spending surged behind Trump: The group outspent every other political nonprofit.

“Groups on both sides dumped some $6 billion into tearing down candidates for public office,” the lawmakers wrote of the 2012 elections in a joint op-ed for the Washington Post. “The anonymity of much of this spending encourages ads that lower the level of political discourse and makes it harder, not easier, for Americans to make informed decisions.”

Still, it’s unclear whether such legislation would have revealed whether Torshin is using the NRA to influence politics in the United States. In its most recent response to Wyden’s current probe, the NRA admits that it takes money from foreigners, but states that the money is only used for “purposes not connected to elections, as permitted by federal law.” Wyden’s latest letter counters that some types of political spending that can influence voters may not be subject to Federal Election Commission disclosure rules, so the NRA should hand over the details. For example, the NRA could send mailers to its members explaining a candidate’s positions on guns without reporting it to the FEC, as long as the mailers don’t mention an election.

This is where campaign finance gets really murky, according to Derek Cressman, a longtime campaign finance reform advocate and author of When Money Talks: The High Price of “Free” Speech and the Selling of Democracy. Regulators, reformers and political operatives have long haggled over what constitutes electoral speech, only to have courts gut campaign finance rules one by one. For example, does a TV ad that attacks a candidate’s personal behavior constitute “electioneering” if it doesn’t mention the voting booth?

“I’ve seen the reform movement spend years spending their time on small fry like that,” Cressman told Truthout in an interview.

Currently, there are limits on how much an individual or corporation can give directly to politicians and candidates, but there is no limit on the amount of money that they can give to groups like the NRA.

Cressman points out that money is fungible, and a group like the NRA could easily stay within the letter of the law by using donations from Russian oligarchs to pay for things like salaries and office supplies, which would allow its lobbying arm and super-PAC to spend more resources on influencing voters and politicians. The NRA didn’t confirm or deny that it took money from Torshin — it simply said that no laws have been broken — so that may be exactly what the organization is doing.

However, Cressman said the question at the heart of campaign finance reform is not whether a Russian oligarch can donate a few thousand dollars to support his views about guns in the US. The real problem is that billionaires of any stripe can spend unlimited amounts of money influencing politics and elections, giving them a huge share of power over lawmakers and the public debate. Requiring groups like the NRA to report their donors would bring some transparency to the current system, but the wealthy would still be able to buy considerable influence with independent expenditures for or against candidates.

“We have a system where money allows a very small group of people who are billionaires, or control billions of dollars by being corporate CEOs, to have a much louder voice than everyone else,” Cressman said.

The answer to this problem is contribution limits, Cressman said. Currently, there are limits on how much an individual or corporation can give directly to politicians and candidates, but there is no limit on the amount of money that they can give to groups like the NRA, which can spend unlimited sums on TV ads and mailers to influence voters as long as they don’t work directly with official campaigns. Capping how much a billionaire investor or the CEO of a massive gun manufacturing company can give the NRA to buy TV ads during an election, for example, would make it harder for them to drown out everyone else’s voices.

Billionaires seeking to buy political influence have long argued that any caps on donations or expenditures by independent groups would violate their First Amendment rights, and the Supreme Court has generally agreed. However, advocates like Cressman point out that contribution limits would not infringe on anyone’s right to say something; they would just limit how loud they can say it in the public arena. For example, we already set limits to how long a lawmaker can speak on the floor of Congress, or how long a brief filed with a court can be, in order to make sure that no one party can monopolize the conversation.

As lawmakers and voters ponder if wealthy Russians or greedy arms dealers are behind the NRA’s power to sway elections, it’s important to remember that the very structure of our electoral system allows groups like the NRA to operate in the dark.

“That’s the only thing that really works — leveling the playing field, just like we do in any other forum [where] we have public policy debate,” Cressman said.

It’s now been seven years since the Citizens United ruling, and campaign finance reform has taken a backseat to other issues among progressives. Even Wyden benefits from millions of dollars in support from big business. Meanwhile, each major election is more expensive than the last, with spending during the 2016 season topping out at $6.4 billion. Cressman said would-be reformers like Wyden have not necessarily lost interest in the issue. President Trump has just made it difficult for politicians to talk about any topic besides himself.

This brings us back to Torshin, the gun-loving Russian oligarch with ties to the NRA. It remains to be seen what — if any — response the NRA’s lawyers will provide Wyden in response to his latest request. If it provides nothing, where might Wyden turn?

While the NRA does not publicly disclose its large donors, it does report large donors to the IRS, which cannot release them publicly. Cressman said Wyden or special counsel Robert Mueller could ask the IRS for the NRA’s major donor list to find out if the group is really a vehicle for Russian influence, and then release a general report to the public. Wyden’s office did not return a request for comment from Truthout.

The Torshin probe is not just the latest episode of a reality-TV presidency. As lawmakers and voters ponder if wealthy Russians or greedy arms dealers are behind the NRA’s power to sway elections, it’s important to remember that the very structure of our electoral system allows groups like the NRA to operate in the dark.

Russian hackers and oligarchs aren’t the only people trying to sway elections. Giant corporations and billionaires like the Koch Brothers are wielding their own influence right here at home. Whether the ultra-wealthy are entitled to this influence — and which politicians have the resolve to do something about it — are the bigger questions facing voters.