Pressed for answers, NRA acknowledges accepting foreign donations

Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks at the NRA-ILA Leadership Forum on May 20, 2016 in Louisville, Ky. (Photo by Mark Peterson/Redux for MSNBC)
Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks at the NRA-ILA Leadership Forum on May 20, 2016 in Louisville, Ky.

After the National Rifle Association's campaign expenditures saw a dramatic jump in 2016, the group started fielding questions about the money's sources. The answers keep getting more interesting.

McClatchy News first reported in January that the FBI is exploring whether "a top Russian banker with ties to the Kremlin illegally funneled money" to the NRA to help Trump win the presidency. The same outlet reported two weeks ago that a former NRA board member, had "concerns" about the group's ties to Russia "and its possible involvement in channeling Russian funds into the 2016 elections."

Politico reported soon after that the Federal Election Commission has launched "a preliminary investigation into whether Russian entities gave illegal contributions" to the far-right group.

NPR moved the ball forward a bit with a new report today, noting that the organization acknowledges accepting money from foreign sources, though the NRA denies anything improper.

In the context of ongoing investigations, Sen. Ron Wyden, the top Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee, wrote to the National Rifle Association earlier this month asking, "Can you categorically state that your organizations have never, wittingly or unwittingly, received any contributions from individuals or entities acting as conduits for foreign entities or interests?"The NRA said that in fact they do receive foreign money, but not for election purposes.

The NRA's argument was presented in writing in a letter to the Oregon senator from the group's general counsel, John Frazer. He added that while the organization has accepted money from companies based in the U.S. which may be owned or managed by foreign nationals, "none of those entities or individuals is connected with Russia, and none of their contributions were made in connection with U.S. elections."

The NPR report added that Wyden, unsatisfied, has asked the group to "provide a detailed accounting of how foreign funds were used over the past three years, whether they were targeted at particular American audiences, and what its measured impact was." The senator also wants to know "whether any Russian nationals or foreign individuals had been members of the NRA's donor programs, and whether the NRA received any money from sanctioned individuals."

Whether the NRA intends to provide that information is not yet clear.

There are several interesting angles to this, but I'd keep two questions in mind. First, is the NRA's account accurate? Given the organization's track record, some skepticism is probably in order.

And second, when the NRA says none of its foreign donations were used for election purposes, how does that work, exactly? Because money is fungible, and the NRA transfers money between its various accounts and entities, isn't this a difficult case to make?

Update: Brendan Fischer, a campaign finance expert at the Campaign Legal Center, told TPM, "Even if the NRA segregated the foreign money that it received, money is fungible. Foreign money in one account frees up money that can be used for elections in another account."

Fischer added, "This is a very carefully worded letter that appears designed to give the impression that the NRA does not take foreign money for its election work, but reading between the lines, it does not actually say that. The NRA said it did not receive foreign money in connection with the U.S. election. It does not say that foreign money was not used in a U.S. election."