Senate Finance Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and Ranking Member Ron Wyden (D-OR) have launched an inquiry into the Center for the National Interest, a conservative think tank, and how the organization came to arrange a meeting for Maria Butina and Alexander Torshin with members of the executive Branch of the U.S. government.
From the press release:
According to news reports, Russian nationals Maria Butina, who recently pleaded guilty to conspiracy to act as an unregistered foreign agent, and then-Russian Central Bank deputy governor Alexander Torshin, met with the vice chairman of the Federal Reserve and the Treasury undersecretary for international affairs in 2015. The meeting was arranged by the Center for the National Interest.
In letters this week to the Department of Treasury, Federal Reserve and the Center for the National Interest, Grassley and Wyden are requesting records related to meetings along with details on policies related to meetings with foreign nationals.
From the letter to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin:
Given what is now known about them from public court filings, it is concerning that Ms. Butina and Mr. Torshin were able to gain access to high-level administration officials to reportedly discuss U.S. Russian economic relations. Furthermore, it is imperative to understand the substance and extent to which Ms. Butina and Mr. Torshin lobbied other administration officials in an effort to change U.S. policy toward Russia or other countries and whether decisions were made as a result of these meetings.
The Senators ask Secretary Mnuchin to send all requested records, notes, and information to their committee by February 26th.
In a letter to Dimitri Simes, the CEO of the Center for the National Interest think tank, the committee requested records related to meetings Torshin and Butina had in 2015 with the Federal Reserve vice chairman and the Treasury Department undersecretary for international affairs.
A Freedom of Information Act request by NPR, which the Federal Reserve responded to the day before the Senate Finance Committee made public its intention to investigate, answers some of the questions being posed by the committee.
The documents reveal that Paul Saunders, then the executive director of the Center for the National Interest, reached out to the Federal Reserve to set up meetings for Torshin. "I am writing to request an appointment for Mr. Alexander Torshin," Saunders wrote, in a March 2015 email. "Mr. Torshin is in the United States on a private visit. ... He would like to discuss U.S.-Russia relations and international economic issues and can also share his perspective on Russia's financial situation and its impact on Russian politics."
NPR's FOIA request also yielded an internal memorandum that summarizes the meeting held between Federal Reserve Vice Chairman Stanley Fischer, Torshin and Butina in April 2015.
The memo reveals that back in spring 2015, both Torshin and Butina were already touting their relationships with the National Rifle Association — and that the meetings with senior officials were an offshoot of their primary trip purpose: to attend the yearly NRA conference.
"Butina ... served as translator during the meeting. She is Founding Chairman and Board Member of a Russian organization which promotes the right to bear arms. They are both life members of the National Rifle Association," the internal memo reads. "They are in the United States to attend the NRA's annual meeting."
The Senate Finance Committee's public announcement Friday of a bipartisan probe into this matter reveals a new element of the numerous congressional investigations into Russia.
"A critical issue facing the Committee and the country is the extent to which the Russian government engaged in efforts designed to undermine our political system and governmental policy through obfuscation and manipulation," the two senators wrote in their letters Friday.