This morning Cheryl wrote about a newly reported on email about another conservative activist attempting to set up a meeting between the President, when he was a candidate, and Russian President Vladimir Putin. According to The NY Times reporting, the email’s author, Paul Erickson, specifically recommended establishing an early “first” contact at the NRA’s annual meeting.
I just wanted to take a little time and explain why this is part of the penetration at all levels portion of the Russian active measures and cyberwarfare campaign that we’ve been tracking since June 2016 and what I mean by the term penetration at all levels.
Working in reverse order, penetration at all levels refers to establishing connections and building a network through a wide variety of elites, notables, organizations, and institutions across as many societal sectors as possible. By doing so one has the ability to both influence and leverage the political, social, economic, religious, educational, entertainment, and military realms. Not all of this is nefarious. Not all of it is done to be detrimental to the US. And the US, as well as American organizations, do this in other countries too. A lot of it is not nefarious or intended to be, but some, like what we’ve been observing of the Russian active measures campaign against the US, definitely are.
Until Putin’s active measures campaign against the US, the EU, and NATO became clear, perhaps the best example of penetration at all levels in the US was by the Israelis. The Israelis are able to leverage both the Jewish American and Christian (specifically the evangelical Christian Zionists) religious communities, politicians from both political parties, the entertainment industry, other business sectors, think tanks, and the military (there is a US Army Military Education Level 1 Senior Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy aka WINEP aka The Washington Institute). This isn’t intended as a screed about Israelis, rather it is simply a quick recounting of how the Israeli government pursues its interests in the US. What Putin and his proxies have done is similar, though nowhere near as thoroughly as the Israelis. That we know of…
In the Russian case a lot of the penetration that is being reported on and made public appears to have been focused solely on more politically, socially, economically, and religiously conservative sectors, groups, and organizations in the US. The Daily Beast first reported on Russia’s connections to the NRA back in February 2017. This was the first of three articles that delineated the creation of a Russian firearms sporting organization partially led by Marina Butina. Specifically:
Two of Butina’s friendships in particular have raised eyebrows. She started a business with Paul Erickson, a decades-long Republican Party activist. And she served as a special assistant to the deputy governor of Russia’s central bank, Alexander Torshin, a former Russian senator belonging to Vladimir Putin’s political party with alleged ties to the Russian mob world.
As chilled vodka flowed through an ice sculpture—a bottle imprinted with the Soviet hammer and sickle—she took some time to brag. She brazenly claimed that she had been part of the Trump campaign’s communications with Russia, two individuals who were present said. On other occasions, in one of her graduate classes, she repeated this claim.
Erickson and Butina have been seen in public frequently, at the invitation-only Freedom Ball after Trump’s inauguration; and holding court at Russia House, a Russian-themed bar in Washington, D.C.’s Dupont Circle. At one such gathering in the fall of 2016 Erickson bragged that he was advising the Trump transition team, according to two sources who were present; he is also said to have told a story about introducing Mikhail Kalashnikov, inventor of the AK-47, to former NRA president David Keene. (Kalashnikov allegedly inspired the creation of “The Right to Bear Arms,” Butina’s gun rights group.)
The two appear to have gotten close: Erickson formed a limited liability corporation with Butina in February 2016, according to the South Dakota secretary of state. It is unclear what this organization, Bridges, LLC, actually does. (Despite living in Washington, D.C., Butina has a cellphone number with a South Dakota area code.)
In The Daily Beast‘s second report, Tim Mak expands on his reporting from February 2017 by digging into the meeting between members of the NRA and Dmitry Rogozin, one of Putin’s hard line deputies and the head of the Russian Shooting Federation, which would make him either Butina’s partner or boss. The Daily Beast‘s third article on this topic delves even deeper to who was at the meeting with Rogozin. Specifically former Milwaukee County Sheriff, Fox News analyst, extremist anti-US government Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officer Association Sheriff of the Year, campaign proxy and Republican National Convention prime time speaker, and withdrawn nominee for political appointment at the Department of Homeland Security David Clarke. And former NRA President and current board member David Keene.
Here’s Rogozin’s tweet about the event. You’ll notice Clarke’s in the second photo. Keene is in the first standing next to Rogozin.
Putin, via his proxies, hasn’t just established connections to the NRA and through NRA officials like Clarke to anti-US government groups like the pro-militia and pro-Bundy Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association. They’ve also worked very hard to establish connections to conservative Christian groups in the US.
Growing up in the 1980s, Brian Brown was taught to think of the communist Soviet Union as a dark and evil place.
But Brown, a leading opponent of same-sex marriage, said that in the past few years he has started meeting Russians at conferences on family issues and finding many kindred spirits.
Brown, president of the National Organization for Marriage, has visited Moscow four times in four years, including a 2013 trip during which he testified before the Duma as Russia adopted a series of anti-gay laws.
“What I realized was that there was a great change happening in the former Soviet Union,” he said. “There was a real push to re-instill Christian values in the public square.”
On issues including gun rights, terrorism and same-sex marriage, many leading advocates on the right who grew frustrated with their country’s leftward tilt under President Barack Obama have forged ties with well-connected Russians and come to see that country’s authoritarian leader, Vladimir Putin, as a potential ally.
The attitude adjustment among many conservative activists helps explain one of the most curious aspects of the 2016 presidential race: a softening among many conservatives of their historically hard-line views of Russia. To the alarm of some in the GOP’s national security establishment, support in the party base for then-candidate Donald Trump did not wane even after he rejected the tough tone of 2012 nominee Mitt Romney, who called Russia America’s No. 1 foe, and repeatedly praised Putin.
Why here’s Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles Grassley at the National Prayer Breakfast. This picture was originally posted to his Instagram account:
Makarov is a member of the United Russia Party and is the head of the Duma’s Budget Committee. Why, exactly, is Russia sending a sixteen member delegation of senior officials to the US National Prayer Breakfast, an event largely promoted and attended by elected, appointed, and otherwise well connected American social and religious conservatives? Penetration at all levels in pursuit of influence. It is also important to remember that the National Prayer Breakfast is the premier annual event of The Family, the secretive, ultra-Christian conservative and neo-fascist organization that runs a boarding house for Christian conservative members of Congress.
Vice President Pence gave a keynote address at Franklin Graham’s summit on religious violence against Christians. He also met with Russian Orthodox Church Metropolitan Alfeyev. Alfeyev runs the Russian Orthodox Church’s external relations department.
Even the sponsor of the President’s foreign policy address in April 2016, The Center for the National Interest, appears to have ties to Russia.
That Trump would choose the Center for the National Interest as the place to premier his new seriousness on foreign policy has Manafort’s fingerprints all over it. For Manafort and the Center have something very important in common: both have ties to the Russian regime of President Vladimir Putin, (whose ambassador to the United States sat in the front row for Trump’s address).
As for the Center, both it and its journal, the National Interest, are two of the most Kremlin-sympathetic institutions in the nation’s capital, even more so that the Carnegie Moscow Center, which has evolved from a hub of Russian liberalism into an accomodationist, intellectually-compromised think tank.
Center director Dmitri Simes worked as an aide to Nixon and for decades has used his connections to the Kremlin — real or perceived — to cultivate a reputation in Washington as one of the few Russia hands who intimately knows that country’s politics. For years, the Center for the National Interest partnered with the Russian government-funded Institute for Democracy and Cooperation, a New York-based institution whose head, Adranik Migranyan, was personally appointed by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, according to a State Department cable released by Wikileaks. In May 2014, the two think tanks held a press conference defending Russia’s position in Ukraine.
Another association connecting Trump to the Center is Richard Burt, chairman of the National Interest’s advisory council, and a former ambassador to Germany and State Department official during the Reagan administration. According to a knowledgeable source, Burt, who had previously worked as an unpaid advisor to former Republican presidential candidate Rand Paul, has been enlisted by Manafort to join Trump’s campaign and helped draft his speech (neither Burt nor Manafort responded to inquiries). Burt sits on the senior advisory board of the Russian Alfa Bank.
Burt is the lobbyist and former diplomat who contradicted AG Sessions testimony that he hadn’t been at dinners hosted by the AG when he was a senator. He also helped to draft the President’s April 2016 speech on foreign policy, while he was lobbying on behalf of Russia.
It is important to note that the editor of The Center for the National Interest’s publication, The National Interest, has publicly disputed Politico‘s reporting in Politico. His refutation in Politico was also one of the items used to impeach AG Sessions memory over one of his meetings with Ambassador Kislyak:
Speaking for myself, after briefly meeting Trump at a reception in the Senate Room of the Mayflower, where a number of politicians and Trump advisers, such as Senator Jeff Sessions and ambassadors, congregated before the event, I can’t claim any kind of conversion experience.
The reason for all of this outreach, networking, and connection making is to both allow for influence operations to proceed and to facilitate contacts and create opportunities for even more leverage and influence. The reason the NRA annual meeting was proposed for a meeting is that Rogozin was already scheduled to be there under cover of his Russian shooting sports organization. And because most media outlets aren’t going to cover the event. And those that do, which tend to focus on the firearms industry or shooting sports, aren’t going to be paying a lot of attention to Rogozin and his organization other than to note how great it is that Russians are looking to the US in pursuing the natural and civil rights to self defense.
And the reason these Russian contacts want meetings and want to take selfies is it gives them access, influence, and leverage. Do I actually think that Senator Grassley is compromised because he was seated with Member of Duma Makarov? No. But that selfie can be used to provide the impression that maybe he can’t be trusted, beyond just simple partisanship and his noted cantankerousness, to run an objective, above board Senate Judiciary Committee investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. Do I think Clarke or the other NRA board members that went to Russia to meet with Rogozin are compromised by the Russians? Doubtful, but hopefully they didn’t do anything strange in their hotel rooms because I’m sure they were under a variety of electronic and signals intelligence throughout their trip.
This is penetration at all levels. Though in this case it is selective, for the time being, on the center right to right in American political, religious, economic, and social spheres. It is intended to provide access, influence, and leverage. Combined with the other portions of the Russian active measures, specifically the cyber warfare campaign, it has been very effective while it has also been very clumsy. Only time will tell just how effective and how much actual damage it has done.