DAVID GREENE, HOST:
NPR has some new details this morning about a Kremlin-linked Russian politician and his ties to the National Rifle Association.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
His name is Aleksandr Torshin. He serves as a deputy governor of the Bank of Russia. Unnoticed by people in the West until very recently, he documented for years how he cultivated relationships with NRA leaders. He says those relationships got him political access, and he says he even managed to meet the future president, Donald Trump, in 2015.
GREENE: All right. This is exclusive reporting from NPR's political reporter Tim Mak, who joins us. And, Tim, who is this guy?
TIM MAK, BYLINE: So Aleksandr Torshin is a former Russian senator. He serves as a deputy governor to the Bank of Russia. He's known as a longtime Putin ally. He served in the Duma in Russia, and he spent time on Russia's National Anti-terrorism Committee. That's a really powerful state body. It includes the director of the SSB. It includes the minister of defense and the minister of foreign affairs.
GREENE: Wow. He has ties all over Russian government institutions. It's amazing.
MAK: Absolutely, and for quite some time. Now, on the other hand, he's also a paid lifetime member of the NRA, which I previously reported. And over six years, he's developed ties with leaders of the NRA. He's used these connections to get deeper into American politics. And we can see these efforts actually documented in real time. These efforts are hiding in plain sight amongst 150,000 tweets that he had written in Russian.
GREENE: What exactly is hiding? I mean, what is he documenting? What did he do?
MAK: Well, it's really interesting. So he documented going to every NRA convention between 2012 and 2016. We hadn't known that he was going every single year, and it's very unusual for a Russian official to be coming to the United States so frequently to do this. He met during this time with four presidents of the NRA - in fact, every president of the NRA who has been there since he started attending in 2012. He appears to have developed a pretty close relationship with David Keene, who was the former NRA president around 2012, 2013. And he was the former president of the American Conservative Union. Torshin also says he met with Donald Trump through the NRA at their convention in 2015. The White House has previously denied this, but they didn't respond to NPR's request on this particular story.
GREENE: OK, so a possible meeting with Donald Trump just before - I mean, if I do the math here, Trump was a presidential candidate in - I mean, back in - this is 2015 you're talking about. But - so is this guy just really interested in American politics?
MAK: It extends beyond, you know, 2015, 2016 and that time period. In 2012, he visited the United States. This is Torshin. He visited the United States, and he was an international observer during the 2012 election. So the United States sends observers to foreign countries to watch their elections.
MAK: And it happens on occasion that foreign observers come to the United States, though probably typically not top Russian officials. In 2012, he traveled to Tennessee to watch balloting for the election when President Obama was facing Mitt Romney. And he writes in one tweet that he was able to leverage his NRA membership to help get him that status.
GREENE: This is amazing. I mean, is there anything illegal about what he is doing? And does this fit somehow into the whole wider Russian effort to influence elections here?
MAK: You know, it's a question that investigators have tried to answer. McClatchy reported last month that the FBI is investigating whether Torshin illegally funneled money to the NRA to assist the Trump campaign in 2016, which is quite the allegation. And members of both the Senate and House intelligence committees have said they want to see whether or not they can answer this question. But it's inconclusive at this point.
INSKEEP: This is all happening in a context where there is a branch of the conservative movement that has been sympathetic to Russia for years. It has seen Vladimir Putin as a strong leader at offending - or defender of Christians or even of white Christianity. And one of the tweets that Tim reveals that he wrote in Russian - this man wrote that he never heard one bad word about Russia in all his trips to the NRA.
GREENE: This is interesting stuff. Tim Mak, thanks for the reporting. We appreciate it.
MAK: Thank you.
GREENE: And let's keep talking about the NRA because a lobbyist for the National Rifle Association is suggesting now that President Trump does not favor the gun measures that he said he did favor.
INSKEEP: Yeah. Here are just two data points from a chaotic week - on Wednesday, the president held a televised meeting with lawmakers and appeared to endorse gun legislation, including measures that the NRA opposes. He accused fellow Republicans of being afraid of the NRA. And then Chris Cox, the top NRA lobbyist, dropped by the Oval Office. Cox came out saying the president does not support gun control, and the president himself wrote on Twitter that he had a, quote, "good, great meeting with the NRA" - unquote.
GREENE: All right. NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith is here. Tam, do we have any idea exactly where the president of the United States stands on guns right now?
TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: I certainly wouldn't want to go out on that limb and try to say where he stands. What we know is the last person he met with late last night, Chris Cox from the NRA, tweeted that he had a great meeting with the president and the vice president. He says we all want safe schools, mental health reform and to keep guns away from dangerous people. POTUS and VPOTUS support the Second Amendment, support strong due process and don't want gun control.
The support strong due process is an important thing to note because just on Wednesday in that televised meeting, President Trump seemed to be arguing for not going through due process, saying, quote, "take the guns first go through due process second," in the case of people who are potentially a danger to themselves or others.
GREENE: So this is all very confusing, including for the president's own party. Republicans don't seem to know where he stands. I just want to play a little bit here of Republican Senator John Thune describing a televised meeting with the president where Trump was sitting beside - seeming to side with Democrats.
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JOHN THUNE: You guys saw - you saw it, right? It was - it was wild.
GREENE: I mean, even he thought this meeting was wild, a Republican senator. But I guess it's - he's laughing there not so funny because Republicans need in a very sensitive moment to try and see if there is some gun measures that they can sort of get behind without the clear guidance of the president.
KEITH: Yeah (laughter). Another Republican congressman described it as a doozy of a meeting. And here's the thing - without - after that meeting, senators came back up to Capitol Hill and were asked by reporters where does the president stand. No one could say. And without pressure from the president, they don't really have a path forward. So yesterday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told reporters that the Senate was going to move on to a banking bill and not vote on legislation that it, for a while, had seemed to have, you know, bipartisan support and a decent path to passage. It was very narrow legislation to improve the background check system, making sure that records get in there.
GREENE: All right. Well, the president himself moved on to a different topic as well yesterday. He makes this big trade announcement. He's meeting with business leaders and, without a whole lot of warning, he announces tariffs on steel and aluminum. But, Tam, this could have a big impact on U.S. trade policy and maybe a lot more, right?
KEITH: Well, the - and the markets were a little bit concerned about it after it happened. But it's not clear. There aren't a lot of details. This seems to have been a case where the White House wasn't prepared to make an announcement. They don't have documents or fact sheets or anything ready for the president to sign. The president just called the press in and said 25 percent for steel, 10 percent for aluminum.
INSKEEP: Awful lot of plot twists in the reality program this week.
KEITH: (Laughter) Indeed.
GREENE: NPR's Tamara Keith hosts NPR's Politics podcast. Tam, thanks.
KEITH: You're welcome.
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GREENE: All right, in Italy, today marks the end of a really nasty election campaign.
INSKEEP: On one side, populist and right-wing parties have been gaining momentum, and on the other side is a center-left party that's held power in recent years. The results of Sunday's vote could have major repercussions for the European Union.
GREENE: And NPR's Sylvia Poggioli joins us on the line from Rome. And, Sylvia, for those of us watching from outside Italy, I think the big story seems to be the return of Silvio Berlusconi, a former prime minister who you really knew well covering.
SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: (Laughter) Indeed.
GREENE: Is he making a comeback?
POGGIOLI: Well, indeed, after turning the country into the butt of jokes with his sex scandals and court trials. He was forced to step down as prime minister in 2011 over a serious economic crisis. He was expelled from Parliament two years later over a tax fraud conviction. But since, you know, he more or less owns his party, he never really left the political stage. He can't run because of his conviction. So he's acting like kingmaker. And at a very well-preserved 81 years of age, he's appearing constantly on TV, promising the same things he promised years ago but never delivered - lower taxes, more jobs, higher pensions. His one real achievement is cobbling together a coalition of right-wing parties that, according to the last polls, is in first place. The coalition just three points below the 40 percent needed to form a majority.
GREENE: OK. So he's aligning himself with some of these right-wing parties that are seen as anti-immigrant. That's where he is today.
POGGIOLI: Absolutely. They are two very populist parties, the League and the smaller Brothers of Italy, which has neo-fascist roots. The League leader, Matteo Salvini, has dominated the campaign. Many analysts blame him for escalating xenophobia and nationalism. He's really strident in promoting Italians first. He promises to expel hundreds of thousands of migrants, and he's virulently opposed to fiscal policies imposed on Italy by the European Union. And that has officials in Brussels very worried.
GREENE: So what are the possible scenarios of this election? What should we be watching for in terms of implications?
POGGIOLI: Well, most analysts predict no clear winner and a hung Parliament. If so, there could be weeks of negotiations between the parties, resulting possibly in a grand left-right coalition, but that could also lead to a political paralysis and yet more muddling through. And that's a process Italian politicians have long mastered.
GREENE: All right. NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reporting from Rome. Thanks so much, Sylvia.
POGGIOLI: Thank you.
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