Conservative Operative With Close Ties to NRA Offered Trump Campaign ‘Kremlin Connection’

Donald J. Trump, then the Republican presidential nominee, speaking at the National Rifle Association convention in Louisville, Ky., in May 2016.
Ty Wright for The New York Times

A conservative operative trumpeting his close ties to the National Rifle Association and Russia told a Trump campaign adviser last year that he could arrange a back-channel meeting between Donald J. Trump and Vladimir V. Putin, the Russian president, according to an email sent to the Trump campaign.

A May 2016 email to the campaign adviser, Rick Dearborn, bore the subject line “Kremlin Connection.” In it, the N.R.A. member said he wanted the advice of Mr. Dearborn and Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama, then a foreign policy adviser to Mr. Trump and Mr. Dearborn’s longtime boss, about how to proceed in connecting the two leaders.

Russia, he wrote, was “quietly but actively seeking a dialogue with the U.S.” and would attempt to use the N.R.A.’s annual convention in Louisville, Ky., to make “‘first contact.’” The email, which was among a trove of campaign-related documents turned over to investigators on Capitol Hill, was described in detail to The New York Times.

Robert S. Mueller III, the special counsel investigating Russian interference in the election and possible collusion with the Trump campaign, secured a guilty plea on Friday from President Trump’s first national security adviser, Michael T. Flynn, for lying to the F.B.I. about contacts with Moscow’s former ambassador to the United States. But those contacts came after Mr. Trump’s improbable election victory.

The emailed outreach from the conservative operative to Mr. Dearborn came far earlier, around the same time that Russians were trying to make other connections to the Trump campaign. Another contact came through an American advocate for Christian and veterans causes, and together, the outreach shows how, as Mr. Trump closed in on the nomination, Russians were using three foundational pillars of the Republican Party — guns, veterans and Christian conservatives — to try to make contact with his unorthodox campaign.

Both efforts, made within days of each other, centered on the N.R.A.’s annual meeting and appear to involve Alexander Torshin, a deputy governor of the Russian central bank and key figure in Mr. Putin’s United Russia party, who was instructed to make contact with the campaign.

“Putin is deadly serious about building a good relationship with Mr. Trump,” the N.R.A. member and conservative activist, Paul Erickson, wrote. “He wants to extend an invitation to Mr. Trump to visit him in the Kremlin before the election. Let’s talk through what has transpired and Senator Sessions’s advice on how to proceed.”

It is not clear how Mr. Dearborn handled the outreach. He forwarded a similar proposal, made through Rick Clay, an advocate for conservative Christian causes, to Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and a top campaign aide. Mr. Kushner rebuffed the proposal at the time, according to two people who have seen Mr. Kushner’s email.

Mr. Sessions told investigators from the House Intelligence Committee that he did not recall the outreach, according to three people with knowledge of the exchange. Mr. Dearborn did not return requests for comment, and Ty Cobb, the White House lawyer dealing with matters related to the investigations, declined to comment. Repeated attempts to reach Mr. Erickson were not successful.

Intelligence agencies have concluded that Russia, on orders from the highest levels of its government, undertook a sophisticated campaign to hack Democratic computers, spread propaganda and undermine the candidacy of Hillary Clinton. The repeated outreach around the N.R.A. convention, where Mr. Trump accepted the group’s endorsement, came just weeks after a self-described intermediary for the Russian government told George Papadopoulos, a campaign aide, that the Russians had “dirt” on Mrs. Clinton. And just weeks later, the president’s eldest son arranged a meeting at Trump Tower with a Russian lawyer who promised damaging information about the would-be Democratic nominee.

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SOURCE: NY Times, Nicholas Fandos