The National Rifle Association made its first public attempt this week to distance itself from any formal involvement in a now infamous trip to Moscow undertaken by a group of its high-ranking members, but internal NRA emails and photos posted on social media reviewed by ABC News appear to show the organization was significantly involved in planning it.
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Sen. Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat who has launched an investigation of the NRA and written a series of letters seeking “information and documentation” about the trip, disputed the NRA’s public attempt to distance itself from the trip.
“It’s not credible for the NRA to claim that they played no official role in the 2015 Moscow trip,” Sen. Wyden told ABC News on Tuesday.
The December 2015 trip, which involved meetings with senior Kremlin officials, has attracted increased scrutiny in the wake of the arrest and guilty plea of gun rights activist and alleged Russian agent Maria Butina, who was involved in planning the trip. After months of silence on the matter, the NRA’s outside counsel William Brewer told The New York Times that NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre “was opposed to the trip” and even prohibited staff members from joining the delegation out of concern that it would be perceived as officially sanctioned.
Emails sent by NRA officials before the trip, as well as photos taken during the visit, offer greater detail about the organization’s role in arranging the excursion.
In one email, an NRA employee appears to help Butina make travel arrangements for a delegation that included former NRA president David Keene, future NRA president Pete Brownell, NRA fundraiser Joe Gregory, NRA benefactor Dr. Arnold Goldschlager and his daughter Hilary, Outdoor Channel CEO Jim Liberatore, and prominent NRA advocate and Trump campaign surrogate David Clarke, then the sheriff of Milwaukee County.
Other emails suggest that the NRA would pay for travel expenses for two delegation members and provide formal NRA “gifts” for the delegation to present to their Russian hosts.
And if the trip wasn’t “official,” Butina doesn’t appear to have been told. “I’ll meet you at the airport,” she wrote to several members of the delegation on Dec. 3, 2015. “For your convenience, in our hands will be a big red sign saying Welcome NRA.”
Photos posted on Facebook by one of Butina’s fellow gun-rights enthusiasts and obtained by ABC News show Butina and members of the NRA delegation in Moscow, posing alongside a large red sign that reads “Welcome to Russia comrads [sic].” It bears the NRA logo in its bottom-right corner.
Another Facebook post – this one from one of Butina’s colleagues – about the trip even tags Butina, Clarke and Liberatore, though it offers a version of events that now conflicts with the NRA’s public stance.
“The delegation of the world’s largest social organization for supporters of weapons, the National Rifle Association USA (The NRA) made an official visit to Moscow and met with supporters of the movement, Right to Arms,” the posts reads when translated from Russian. “This is the first time this has happened in Russia’s history.”
Wyden declined to discuss the specific information his office has obtained to date but pledged to continue his probe, citing what he characterized as the NRA’s changing positions on Russia-related matters.
“Certainly that has caused many of my colleagues to want additional information on these issues,” Wyden told ABC News. “And our investigation is going to continue.”
NRA outside counsel Brewer pointed ABC News to the statement issued to the Times, which highlighted LaPierre’s concern back in 2015 that the group traveling to Moscow "not be viewed as representing the NRA."
“When he became aware of the details of the trip, Wayne was personally opposed to it," Brewer told ABC News through a spokesman. The spokesman also noted that the group’s president at the time, Allan Cors, opted not to attend at LaPierre’s suggestion, and the NRA declined to send staff to Moscow with the group, as they had typically done on officially sponsored travel.
An attorney for Butina, who is in jail as she continues to cooperate with investigators under the terms of her plea agreement, declined to comment.
Dozens of pages of email correspondence between August 2015 and November 2016, shared with ABC News by a source who asked not to be identified, detail Butina’s efforts to organize the summit that brought high-ranking NRA members and powerful Russian nationals together in Moscow in December 2015, a trip championed by Butina’s fledgling gun-rights group “Right to Bear Arms.”
The American delegation met with Butina and the man described by U.S. officials as her Russian handler, Alexander Torshin, a wealthy politician who at the time was Deputy Governor of the Russian Central Bank. Torshin was among those sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury in 2018. They met with Dmitry Rogozin, then-Russian Deputy Prime Minister who was sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury in 2014. Emails also show Butina was eager to add Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, a powerful member of Putin’s inner circle, to their itinerary, and one of the trip’s attendees confirmed via social media the meeting took place.
On Dec. 10 2015, Clarke tweeted a photo of him standing next to a Russian soldier with the description: “Red Square near the Kremlin with a Russian officer. Met earlier with Russian Foreign Minister who spoke on Mid East.”
The trip has come under increased scrutiny as Butina’s efforts to infiltrate the NRA as part of a covert influence operation in the United States have come to light in court filings by U.S. prosecutors. The NRA attorneys and press officers have declined for months to respond to requests from ABC News to answer questions about the trip.
Internal emails show that an NRA employee, Nicholas Perrine, worked directly with Butina to coordinate travel arrangements for the trip’s attendees. A 2016 wedding announcement in Politico identified Perrine as a special assistant to the president of the NRA.
“What arrangements for meetings are being made for the gentleman from the Outdoor Channel who would be joining the NRA group in Russia?” Perrine wrote to Butina from an NRA email account on Oct. 10, 2015.
A few days later, Perrine asked Butina for guidance on how to handle their visa applications, in which he suggests the NRA will be covering travel expenses for its former president Keene and the current president Cors, who had initially considered attending but later declined. Keene's wife said in an email at the time that Cors and his wife "have to cancel for health reasons."
“Where it asks who will be paying for their trip and stay in Russia — what should our people put for an answer?” Perrine wrote to Butina on Oct. 15, 2015. “For the Keenes and Cors should they say NRA? Should the Goldschlagers put themselves? Or do we need to put down an organization in Russia who will be providing the lodging?”
A source familiar with the arrangements this week told ABC News that the NRA ultimately did pay some travel-related expenses and assisted with coordinating some aspects of the trip, “an accommodation to the members who made the trip of their own accord.”
The following month, Keene’s wife Donna Wiesner, who also assisted in organizing the trip, assured Butina that the NRA would be providing the delegation with “formal” gifts for their hosts so as not to run afoul of Russian customs.
“They particularly want to know how many gifts they will need,” Wiesner wrote to Butina on Nov. 2, 2015. “NRA will supply the formal ones, but for any meetings … they don’t want to be caught rude like I must have seemed at our last dinner.”
ABC News’ Trish Turner, Patrick Reevell, Halley Frager and Jinsol Jung contributed to this report.