White House pulled out of meet and greet with ‘conservatives’ favorite Russian’ over suspected mob ties

Michael Isikoff
Chief Investigative Correspondent
Alexander Torshin, a close ally of Russian President Putin and deputy governor of the Bank of Russia. (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Alexander Shalgin/TASS via Getty Images, AP[2])

The White House abruptly canceled a scheduled meeting in February between President Trump and a high-level Russian central banker after a national security aide discovered the official had been named by Spanish police as a suspected “godfather” of an organized crime and money-laundering ring, according to an administration official and four other sources familiar with the event.

The event had been planned as a meet and greet with President Trump and Alexander Torshin, the deputy governor of the Bank of Russia and a close ally of President Vladimir Putin, in a waiting room at the Washington Hilton before the National Prayer Breakfast on Feb. 2. Torshin, a top official in his country’s central bank, headed a Russian delegation to the annual event and was among a small number of guests who had been invited by Prayer Breakfast leaders to meet with Trump before it began.

But while reviewing the list of guests, a White House national security aide responsible for European affairs noticed Torshin’s name and flagged him as a figure who had “baggage,” a reference to his suspected ties to organized crime, an administration official told Yahoo News. Around the same time, a former campaign adviser alerted the White House that the meeting could exacerbate the political controversy over contacts between Trump associates and the Kremlin, another source familiar with the matter said.

The sources were unable to say who inside the White House canceled the scheduled meeting, or precisely when the decision was made. The administration official who spoke to Yahoo News said that White House officials were already planning to scrap the meeting when the National Security Council staffer raised concerns about it. But it was not until the night before the Prayer Breakfast that Torshin was informed, without explanation, that his meeting with the president had been scrapped.

“Late the night before, we were told that all meet and greets were off,” said Maria Butina, a special assistant to Torshin, in an email to Yahoo News, confirming that Torshin had expected to meet Trump at the event. “There were no specific questions or statements that Mr. Torshin had in mind during what we assumed to be a five-second handshake. We all hope for better relations between our two countries. I’m sure there will be other opportunities to express this hope.”

Maria Butina, the founding chair of a Russian gun rights group and special assistant to Torshin. (Photo: ITAR-TASS/Zumapress.com)

The disclosure of the canceled meeting comes as new details are emerging about a Spanish law enforcement investigation that targeted Torshin. The Spanish newspaper El País, which collaborated with Yahoo News on this story, is reporting Sunday that Spanish national police had mounted an elaborate operation to arrest Torshin at the Mallorca airport in the summer of 2013 when he was expected to fly in to attend the birthday party of an accused leader of a Russian organized crime syndicate.

But Torshin failed to show, leading police to conclude he had likely been tipped off by Russian officials, according to the El País report, which cites four judicial and police sources.

Torshin has strongly denied having ties to organized crime figures, and Butina, in her email, called the allegations against him “baseless,” adding: “Mr. Torshin has been repeatedly cleared of all allegations by multiple investigative services.”

While the near-meeting averted what could have been, at a minimum, a political embarrassment for the White House, Torshin’s trip to Washington illustrates what some U.S. intelligence sources say appears to be an aggressive Kremlin effort to forge alliances with conservative Republican Party leaders and activists, including figures close to the White House. They describe this as one element in the broader Russian “influence campaign” that included the Kremlin’s interference in the 2016 presidential election marked by cyberattacks on the Democratic National Committee and the email account of Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta.

Torshin, once a leader of Putin’s United Russia Party and a senator in the Duma before being named deputy governor of the Bank of Russia in 2015, is a key figure in the Kremlin’s outreach to the conservative movement in the United States. In addition to his appearance at the Prayer Breakfast — an event he has been attending for the past several years — Torshin is also a “life member” of the National Rifle Association — an organization that spent more than $30 million in support of President Trump’s campaign. Torshin has regularly shown up at the gun lobby’s annual conventions, even engaging in target-shooting contests in the exhibit halls with Republican strategists. His assistant, Butina, is the founding chair of a Russian gun rights group, the Right to Bear Arms, which has been described as a Russian version of the NRA. While attending last year’s NRA convention in Louisville, Ky., Torshin was introduced to Donald Trump Jr. at a private dinner at a Louisville restaurant, according to three sources familiar with the encounter.

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin (R) , State Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov (L) and Federation Council Deputy Chief Alexander Torshin (C) attend a presentation ceremony of state awards in the Kremlin on June 12, 2011 in Moscow, Russia. (Photo: Konstantin Zavrazhin/Getty Images)

“He’s sort of the conservatives’ favorite Russian,” said Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., who together with Rep. Tom Massie, R-Ky., had dinner with Torshin and other members of the Russian delegation to the Prayer Breakfast at a Washington restaurant. “He’s someone who understands our system. His approach is, ‘I agree with you Americans: People should have a right to own guns. There should be religious freedom. The whole problem is with radical Muslims. We were able to have a very good exchange.”

But even while forging ties with Rohrabacher and other conservative Republicans, such as former NRA president David Keene and veteran GOP consultant and Trump transition adviser Paul Erickson, Torshin has been on the radar of international law enforcement officials as a result of a long-running Spanish police investigation into a Russian organized crime syndicate known as the Taganskaya. The group has been accused of laundering profits from racketeering, extortion and other criminal activities through real estate and hotel investments on the Spanish island of Mallorca. Spanish police have made several arrests in connection with the investigation, and an alleged leader of the group, a Russian businessman named Alexander Romanov, pleaded guilty to money-laundering charges in the case last year.

The El País story reports that Spanish national police had wiretapped Romanov and recorded 33 telephone conversations he had with Torshin in which the accused mobster referred to the Russian banker as “el padrino,” or godfather. Alerted that Torshin was planning to attend Romanov’s birthday party on August 23, 2013, the national police prepared to arrest the banker, deploying a dozen officers at the airport and at the Mallorca hotel where the party was to take place. But a Russian official in the Ministry of Interior at the Russian Embassy in Madrid had been informed about the operation. When Torshin failed to show, Spanish police concluded the Interior official had tipped Torshin off. “We suspect that it was he who advised that Torshin was being investigated in Spain and for that reason, he did not come,” a judicial source is quoted as telling El País.

The thwarted plans to arrest Torshin frustrated Spanish law enforcement officials about the level of cooperation they were receiving from the Russian government in their investigations into organized crime. It prompted them to conclude it would be pointless to formally charge Torshin and seek his extradition, especially given his official position, according to the El País report. “it would have delayed the investigation, it would have slowed it,” a judicial source is quoted as saying. “We do not have the support of the Russian authorities.”

Bloomberg News, citing the Spanish National Police dossier prepared under the direction of the country’s best-known prosecutor, Jose Grinda, first reported last year that Torshin was a key suspect in the investigation. Since then, El País has obtained a copy and shared it with Yahoo News as part of a collaborative reporting project for this story.

Russian defendant Alexander Romanov, right, on trial for money-laundering in Palma de Mallorca, Spain, in 2016. (Photo: Cati Cladera/EPA)

Citing the intercepted telephone calls between Romanov and Torshin, the dossier states that “above Romanov at a higher hierarchical level is Alexander Torshin. In the numerous telephone conversations and with different interlocutors, Alexander Romanov himself recognizes the subordination that he reveals to what he calls the ‘padrino or ‘the chief’…” — a reference to Torshin.

The report portrays Torshin’s activities as an example of the penetration of the Russian government by Russian and Euro-Asian criminal organizations. It quotes from some of the wiretapped calls in which Romanov tells an associate he was investing in a Mallorca hotel, called Mar y Pins, on Torshin’s behalf. “The Chief instructed him to buy a hotel because he has two daughters and wants one of them to inherit it besides the stock packages,” the report states, summarizing one of Romanov’s phone calls with an associate. He explains in another wiretapped call that he was fronting for Torshin on the hotel purchase because “the padrino cannot buy here … because he is a public official.”

When interviewed last year by Bloomberg in his office in Moscow, where he kept a small bust of Putin, Torshin dismissed the allegations as groundless and characterized his conversations with Romanov as purely social. In an emailed statement to El País, a press spokesman for the Bank of Russia said: “Spanish law enforcement agencies have never brought any charges against Mr. Torshin nor have they made any inquiries. Furthermore, they have never provided either Mr. Torshin or Russian law enforcement agencies with any kind of information about the alleged ties of Mr. Torshin with organized crime. Mr. Torshin was acquainted with Alexander Romanov in 1990s, their contacts were informal in nature and terminated seven years ago. Mr. Torshin has never intended to visit Alexander Romanov. Mr. Torshin has never had any business connections with Alexander Romanov. Mr. Torshin has never owned real estate or business in Spain.”

The spokesman also said that Torshin has “privately attended the Prayer Breakfast” over the past 12 years. “In 2017, he attended the Prayer Breakfast when he was officially on vacation. In addition, President Trump has never proposed a meeting to Mr. Torshin.”

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