Q&A: Tim Mak on the NRA's "Misfire"

A conversation with the author of a blockbuster new book about the group on how its largesse helped a Russian agent during the 2016 U.S. election cycle.

Tim Mak is NPR's Washington Investigative Correspondent. While reporting for The Daily Beast in 2017, he broke the story of the National Rifle Association's ties to Russian agent Maria Butina. He is the author of a new book, Misfire: Inside the Downfall of the NRA. Mak conducted over 100 interviews and obtained thousands of pages of leaked documents, painting a portrait of the rise and fall of one of the most powerful lobbying organizations in the United States. In recent years, the NRA has faced bankruptcy, high-profile resignations, investigations, and lawsuits, including one by New York Attorney General Letitia James. The book goes into great detail on the group's ties to Russian officials, which became the focus of FBI and Senate Intelligence Committee investigations. I spoke with Mak last week over Zoom. Our conversation follows, edited for length and clarity.

Luke Johnson: You report that NRA President David Keene met Russian Senator Alexander Torshin in 2011. What's going on for the NRA at that time in the United States?

Tim Mak: What we find is the NRA in Russia over a period of years developed some really close connections, you pointed out one of them. A big question going into this was what was the purpose? Why was that? Why was that interesting? This is a different period of U.S.- Russian relations. There was a lot of interest from many quarters in the United States to develop better relations with the Russian government.

LJ:At that time in the Obama presidency, the NRA is riding high. It seems like they're meeting their goals of fundraising, and they're a power player in Republican politics.

TM: The NRA flourishes in years in which Democrats hold power, and over the Obama years, the NRA was doing really well, fundraising-wise. It reaches the apex of its power in 2015-2016, which is when it pushes tens of millions of dollars in order to try to help Donald Trump get elected. One interesting fact is that the NRA spent more money supporting Donald Trump's election bid than Trump's own super PAC.

LJ: Let's talk about Maria Butina. Explain her background. She doesn't strike me as a typical intelligence agent.

TM: As I reported more about her, the question of whether she's an intelligence agent or merely someone who is a Russian government agent -- doing spot-and-assess operations, networking with powerful American political players, and passing on information to the Russian government -- that distinction becomes clearer over time. [She is the latter.] She grows up in Siberia and becomes a gun-rights activist in Russia, which is not nearly as common as in the United States. She ends up building her network to Moscow, and meeting Alexander Torshin who, like her, is really interested in firearms and gun policy.

LJ: When did she first make contact with the NRA?

TM: She uses Alexander Torshin's previously existing relationship with David Keene. She begins to network within the NRA, or you can say infiltrate the NRA. It's over a period of years. It's not the NRA benefiting from Russian assistance. It's this Russian agent, Maria Butina, benefiting deeply from NRA assistance. The NRA was flush with money and riding high over the Obama era and they are able to and are malleable enough to support Maria Butina in her networking, in her travels, and [as she] tried to take delegations of NRA officials to Moscow in 2015. The NRA becomes, in a lot of ways, a slush fund for Maria Butina's activities and efforts to develop relationships in the United States.

LJ: Did you ever talk with her for the book?

TM: No, I did not talk with her for the book. Although, she spoke to NPR for an interview, and I was present for that.

LJ: The NRA holds this trip to Russia in December 2015. What's in it for them? Why do they want to go? It seems really odd for them to go, because as you mentioned, being a gun rights activist is not the most common thing in Russia.

TM: Every individual on that trip to Moscow seems to have had a personal reason to want to go. For example, Pete Brownell, who was the incoming president of the NRA, is the head of a firearms manufacturer in the United States. He was interested in using that trip for discussions about possible commercial opportunities. David Keene went because he was trying to secure an interview with Vladimir Putin and thought that this trip might help him with that. These officials were traveling as delegates of the NRA, but all had their personal efforts and commercial ventures, and were just using the NRA to pay the bills.

LJ: How does this trip come off? Paint a picture of it.

TM: They end up meeting with all sorts of Russian officials, including at least one that is sanctioned by the United States. They develop all sorts of ties. Particularly, the relationship with Maria Butina develops in such a way that after the trip, she feels like she has developed deep enough connections inside the NRA that she can ask them for all sorts of things. She ends up moving to Washington, D.C., and becoming a graduate student and continuing to develop relations inside the NRA.

“Did the Russian government give any assistance to the National Rifle Association, financial or otherwise? It turns out, the real answer is the other way around. The National Rifle Association, by being disorganized, chaotic, and arguably corrupt, was using its members' money to assist a Russian government agent to pursue her aims.”

LJ: Explain her journey in Washington, D.C. She's a graduate student at American University in international affairs.

TM: This is also where I start to hear about Maria Butina. As I described in Misfire, I'm sitting for breakfast with a source. The source is saying, there's this strange individual at American University, who is claiming to be a tie between the Russian Government and the Trump campaign, having all these connections inside the National Rifle Association. It started leading me down a path of trying to figure out who this was, and what she was all about. She would present herself with a different title or a different background, depending on who she met. She would say she was a journalist; she would say that she worked for the Russian government, for Torshin; she would say that she was a translator, or that she was a student at American University. While I'm writing about her in early 2017, there is a lot of new suspicion about Russia's efforts in the United States and its interference during the 2016 elections. The fact that there was this person who personified a possible venue through which the Russian government might be affecting American politics; she instantly became a very intriguing figure to me and a lot of other folks.

LJ: She asks a question of Trump at a Las Vegas convention [in 2015]. She's acting very much out in the open. This is not somebody who is in the shadows.

TM: She's not someone who's trying to be particularly secretive. This is an individual who wants to be known; who wants to ask questions that might benefit Russian strategic interests. I don't refer to her as a spy, because this was a different kind of effort. It was much more about networking, building relationships, and gaining information.

LJ: How would you assess the NRA-Russia relationship in Russia's broader efforts to influence the 2016 US election?

TM: I went into this whole investigation interested, first and foremost, [with the question of] did the Russian government give any assistance to the National Rifle Association, financial or otherwise? It turns out, the real answer is the other way around. The National Rifle Association, by being disorganized, chaotic, and arguably corrupt, was using its members' money to assist a Russian government agent to pursue her aims. 

There was a particularly interesting part of the Senate Intelligence Committee's investigation into Russian interference. In the section under Maria Butina, there is a footnote that is redacted that seems to allude to some connection between Maria Butina and the Internet Research Agency [the troll farm based in St. Petersburg]. That is the most tantalizing and public suggestion today that there might be some sort of organized effort that routed information from Maria Butina to the Russian government in even more nefarious ways.

LJ: Maria Butina is arrested. She serves hard time in U.S. prison [and is deported]. The Senate Intelligence Committee begins investigating this and releases a report. What's the fallout like for the NRA after this?

TM: These multiple congressional investigations happen in the context of all sorts of other troubles that are happening inside the organization. NRA President Oliver North gets publicly tossed from the organization. There's a revolt among some of its members who want new leadership, all sorts of press is starting to bubble up about corrupt spending by Wayne LaPierre, the CEO of the National Rifle Association and other senior officials. As that happens, the New York Attorney General [Letitia James] is investigating the NRA, and right now is trying to get a court to dissolve the National Rifle Association. It creates this combined crisis, that is probably the greatest threat to the NRA's very existence that it's ever seen.

LJ: It's ironic that this crisis happens right after their greatest victory in electing Trump.

TM: Part of the story that's so interesting is that the NRA fundraises and gains a lot of members at times when its members feel like it's under threat. It felt that way during the Obama administration. But once Donald Trump was elected, fundraising falls off a cliff. The NRA had very little strategic planning on how they were going to deal with that sort of problem, even though it was foreseeable.As that cash crunch starts to happen, some of their corrupt acts start to bubble up to the surface. This is when we start to see some of the reporting about private jets, exotic vacations, and six-figure [spending on] suits by Wayne LaPierre.

LJ: We're in a perilous moment for American democracy. Trump is out of power; he tells people he's running in 2024. There's a lot of fear and anger in the country over COVID, the economy, and politics. It seems like something the NRA might do well in given this climate of fear. Are they able at all to take advantage of that?

TM: The NRA has so many problems right now. That they have been cutting spending dramatically to try to balance the books. They're dealing with this life-threatening litigation in New York, with the New York Attorney General saying that they've spent tens of millions of dollars in members' money in an illegal or inappropriate way. They have not been able to muster the same kind of money or political power that they have in 2016, or in the years before that. They just haven't been able to retain that power because of all the trouble they've gone through.

LJ: What do you think is their future?

TM: It's going to depend on a couple of major things. One is what is going to happen with  Wayne LaPierre as the CEO of the National Rifle Association. He has been at the center of the allegations. The New York Attorney General's estimate is in the tens of millions of dollars of inappropriate and improper spending. What happens to him? Does he get to survive as the head of the organization? The ongoing litigation is going to have a lot of impact. The New York Attorney General wants to shut down the NRA entirely and needs a judge to agree that that is the best outcome. We will see how that develops over the next year.

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