Photographer: Andrey Rudakov/Bloomberg

Putin Loyalists Are Invading Washington

  • Putin ally’s gun-lobby membership opened doors to Trump family
  • ‘We can’t miss this chance to make up’: former Kremlin staffer

President Donald Trump’s fans in Moscow are fanning out across Washington, determined to salvage the rapprochement he promised despite a widening barrage of probes into the billionaire’s ties to Russia.

As the Kremlin waits impatiently for signs Trump will follow through on campaign pledges to improve relations, a growing number of the property tycoon’s Russian admirers -- including two who’ve worked on Vladimir Putin’s staff -- are pursuing what they’re calling a “private” reconciliation.

This includes the attendance of a dozen Putin loyalists at the exclusive National Prayer Breakfast and a private dinner with Republican congressmen that was sponsored by a Rockefeller oil heir -- unofficial efforts to build backchannels to Trump that have, of course, the unofficial blessing of officials in Moscow.

“We can’t miss this chance to make up,” said Sergei Shakhov, a former Kremlin staffer who attended the Feb. 2 prayer breakfast, a networking forum for U.S. political and business leaders. Trump spoke at the event, upholding a presidential tradition that dates back to Dwight D. Eisenhower.

‘Invade Latvia?’

The leader of the delegation, central bank Deputy Chairman Alexander Torshin, a former senator who laughs off Spanish claims that he’s a crime boss, was even hoping to shake hands with Trump, an old acquaintance. But the White House nixed the meet-and-greet at the last minute without explanation, according to two Russians familiar with the matter.

The brief meeting Torshin was due to have with Trump was canceled after a White House aide realized the Russian had been suspected of being a mafia “godfather,” Yahoo News reported, citing five people it didn’t identify.

The White House said a meeting with Torshin at the National Prayer Breakfast was never on Trump’s agenda.

Torshin declined to elaborate on his trip, saying only that he’s been to the annual event 12 times. In an interview with Bloomberg last year, the gun enthusiast said he’s known Trump for five years and the two men last had a jovial exchange at the National Rifle Association convention in Tennessee in 2015, just before the future president announced his run for the White House.

“Trump said, ‘So, you’re from Russia -- when are you going to invade Latvia?”’ Torshin said in the interview, adding that he assured Trump that Putin had no such designs on the former Soviet republic, which is a member of both the European Union and the U.S.-led NATO military alliance.

Disputed Account

The White House has a very different view, saying that Trump never had a meeting with Torshin and that no one recalls them having any encounter at all.

Torshin said in the interview he stayed clear of then-candidate Trump at last year’s N.R.A. event to avoid controversy, dining with Donald Trump Jr. instead.

Read more: A Q&A explainer on Trump’s Russia saga

A person familiar with the encounter disputed Torshin’s account, saying Trump Jr. recalls meeting a Russian that night but doesn’t recall if it was Torshin. When mutual acquaintances introduced the two men, the pair exchanged pleasantries, then the Russian sat at a table nearby, this person said.

As Bloomberg reported last August, a secret Spanish report about a probe that ended in 2013 alleged Torshin used his position as a senator to help Moscow mobsters launder funds through Spanish banks and properties, which he denies.

‘Putin Stooge’

What was scheduled, though, was a private dinner for Torshin and his Russian colleagues that was hosted by Rockefeller heir George O’Neill Jr. and included Republican lawmakers Dana Rohrabacher of California and Thomas Massie of Kentucky, as well as a longtime lobbyist, a Hollywood director and editors from The National Interest and the American Conservative magazines.

O’Neill said Russians need to be reassured that “very serious” Americans understand the “obvious benefits” of better relations.

“One does not have to be a ‘useful idiot’ or a ‘Putin stooge’ to hold this view, nor does one have to approve of all of Russia’s or Putin’s actions, which can sometimes be problematic,” the conservative activist said in a written response to questions. “I plan to continue these private interactions.”

Rohrabacher, who’s visited Moscow several times, said he’s interested in “lowering the temperature” of U.S.-Russia relations and finding ways to cooperate in combating “our mutual, overarching enemy: radical Islamic terrorism.” Trump invited him for a private talk in the White House this week.

A spokeswoman for Massie, Rohrabacher’s congressional colleague, declined to comment on the dinner with the Russians aside from confirming his attendance.

Mike Tyson

Another interlocutor, Ronald Maxwell, who directed the 1993 Civil War film “Gettysburg” and wrote for Breitbart News when it was run by senior White House adviser Stephen Bannon, said the Americans urged their Russian guests to let the Kremlin know that Putin can help Trump by “being patient.”

“Trump needs to lock up some major domestic victories,” Maxwell said by phone. “Then he’ll be in a better position to do the things internationally he wants to do.”

In the meantime, Russian businesses are pushing ahead with projects to try to bring the two countries closer together.

Russia’s top lobbyist is organizing a road show for entrepreneurs to pitch their ideas to investors across America this summer. And the co-owner of a leading for-profit university, Synergy, plans to hire Mike Tyson to promote a business conference in New York in October, followed by one in Moscow in November.

‘Empire Reloaded’

Synergy’s Vadim Lobov, who joined Torshin in Washington, said rising anti-Russia sentiment makes it imperative for non-state actors like himself to do what they can to ease tensions.

“We have to create lots of avenues for dialogue,” Lobov said at his headquarters on the outskirts of Moscow, a converted factory decorated with a wall-sized Putin portrait in the pop-art style of Andy Warhol. Synergy, which has 35,000 students across the country, sells T-shirts online with patriotic slogans like “Crimea Is Ours” and “The Russian Empire -- Reloaded.”

Torshin met Ambassador Sergey Kislyak during the visit, according to two members of the delegation. Russians who interact with U.S. political groups make sure to brief officials in Moscow when they return home, according to Andrey Kolyadin, another former Kremlin staffer who attended the breakfast.

“This wasn’t some fringe gathering,” said Kolyadin, who’s now a political consultant. “The other side has direct access to leadership and so do we.”

Tillerson Love

Still, he said neither side believes rapprochement, if possible at all, can be achieved anytime soon -- but that doesn’t mean Russians should stop trying.

If it wasn’t for the effort, he said he may never have gotten the chance to shake hands with what may be the most-loved American in Russia after Trump -- former Exxon Mobil Corp. chief Rex Tillerson, who attended the prayer breakfast a day after being sworn in as secretary of state.

“We sat very close to each other and just smiled,” Kolyadin said.

— With assistance by Margaret Talev

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