The Federal Election Commission has launched a preliminary investigation into whether Russian entities gave illegal contributions to the National Rifle Association that were intended to benefit the Trump campaign during the 2016 presidential election, according to people who were notified of the probe.
The inquiry stems in part from a complaint from a liberal advocacy group, the American Democracy Fund, which asked the FEC to look into media reports about links between the rifle association and Russian entities, including a banker with close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
A spokesman for the NRA and its lobbying arm, the Institute for Legislative Action, which together contributed $30 million to Trump’s presidential campaign, declined to comment on the FEC’s probe.
An FEC spokesman also declined to comment, saying the agency is prohibited by law from confirming or denying any investigations until they’re complete.
Under FEC procedures, the preliminary investigation is likely to require the NRA to turn over closely guarded internal documents and campaign finance records. Depending on what FEC investigators and lawyers find, the agency could launch a full-blown investigation, impose fines or even make criminal referrals to the Justice Department and Special Counsel Robert Mueller, people familiar with the probe said.
The preliminary investigation focuses on issues similar to those raised recently by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore), the ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee, as part of his investigation into possible collusion between the NRA, the Trump campaign and Russia.
Wyden is particularly interested in whether Russian-backed entities helped the Trump campaign by funneling contributions to the gun-rights group that “inappropriately and illegally influenced our election,” according to a Feb. 2 letter Wyden sent to the NRA.
In his letter, Wyden gave the NRA a Feb. 16 deadline to answer a series of questions and produce documents about its potential dealings with any Russian individuals or businesses or their intermediaries, including anything it has turned over to U.S. authorities.
“I am specifically troubled by the possibility that Russian-backed shell companies or intermediaries may have circumvented laws designed to prohibit foreign meddling in our elections by abusing the rules governing … tax exempt organizations,” Wyden wrote.
In response to that letter, an attorney for the NRA told the senator’s aides that the group was already “answering questions about possible Russian donations as part of an FEC inquiry,” according to a statement from Wyden’s office.
Brad Woodhouse, treasurer for the American Legal Democracy Fund, said he received confirmation from the FEC that it had launched a preliminary investigation into the group’s complaint.
While not confirming the probe, an FEC official said such investigations are launched after FEC lawyers determine that there is at least the potential that campaign finance laws were broken.
Woodhouse, a longtime Democratic Party activist, said the FEC inquiry is a significant step in getting to the bottom of a very complicated series of relationships between the NRA, the Trump campaign and Russian entities.
“This story sounds more like a Tom Clancy novel than a reality,” said Woodhouse. “But in the age of Donald Trump and possible collusion with Russia, not only is it possible that it’s true, but it’s possible enough that it needs to be fully investigated.”
Woodhouse said the FEC is not empowered to investigate whether Russian entities knowingly attempted to pass campaign donations through the NRA and its lobbying arm, which is not required to disclose details of its political donors.
“But it can look at whether or not the NRA is taking illegal foreign money to conduct political activity, and whether is money is passed on to support the campaign,” Woodhouse said. “They would have to investigate all of those linkages to determine whether there was any illegal election activity.”