Karl Marx once wrote that history repeats itself, once as tragedy and once as farce. This week, two very different people embodied this maxim as they fooled Republicans through the power of the NRA.
The first was Sacha Baron Cohen, whose Showtime series Who is America? premiered this weekend. Disguised as ex-Mossad agent Erran Morrad, he met with Republican lawmakers and gun lobbyists to promote Kinder Guardians, a program teaching preschoolers how to use firearms to stop school shooters - and got their approval. Virginia gun lobbyist Philip Van Cleave appeared in a fake commercial with "Morrad" advertising Gunnimals, a line of guns for kids that includes such products as Puppy Pistol and Gunny Rabbit, and a slew of current and former lawmakers endorsed the program on film, with Congressman Dana Rohrabacher saying, “Maybe having many young people trained and understand how to defend themselves and their school might actually make us safer here."
Since the show aired, they have attempted to walk back their appearances. Rohrabacher has called the show "a sick fraud, [intended] to deceive the American people for political purposes." In an letter written last February, after the interview was filmed, Van Cleave claimed he was a victim of "psychological manipulation," made to feel beholden to the producers with "luxury accommodations, limousine service...[and] a generous allowance."
I am willing to believe that Van Cleave, Rohrabacher, and the other Republicans duped into endorsing Cohen's made-up initiative regret appearing with him, but not for the reasons they profess. In a functioning democracy, an idea as stupid as Kinder Guardians would never see the light of day, but the gun lobby has kept the Republicans on a short leash for the last half-century, tempting them with the promise of more money. Rohrabacher, who accepted $42,150 from the NRA in the last election cycle and currently faces his toughest re-election odds in years, is in no place to turn down their support. Neither is Joe Wilson, who also endorsed Kinder Guardians and took $48,839 from the NRA in 2016. Cohen has always been a provocateur par excellence who goes to extremes to reveal people's true colors, and knew he could use the NRA to display the Republicans' gullibility to the world.
On the other side, one of the most significant breaks in Trump-Russia came yesterday with the arrest of Maria Butina, the first Russian spy to be arrested on US soil during this investigation. In a proposal called "Project Description - "Diplomacy'" written to her handler, Alexander Torshin, in March of 2015, Butina said that "Political Party 1" (the Republicans) would win control of the US government in the 2016 election. Although they were "traditionally associated with negative and aggressive foreign policy, particularly with regards to Russia," she added:
"However, now with the right to negotiate seems best to build konstruktivnyh [sic] relations...[and that] [c]entral place and influence in the [Republican Party] plays the [GUN RIGHTS ORGANIZATION, a.k.a. the NRA]. The [NRA is] the largest sponsor of the elections to the US congress, as well as a sponsor of the CPAC conference and other events."
Butina used her influence to establish backchannels of communication with Republicans in the United States that would go from the GOP, through the NRA, and directly into the Kremlin. We know from the affidavit that at least two Republicans were contacts, identified as "U.S. PERSON 1" (most likely Trump operative Paul Erickson) and "U.S. PERSON 2" (not yet identified.) In 2016, after she had moved to Washington D.C. on a student visa, she wrote to "U.S. PERSON 2" that Putin had signed off on the proposal. She spent the rest of that year furthering her relations with Republican officials by organizing "Friendship and Dialogue" breakfasts, attempting to arrange meetings between Trump and Putin, and attended the National Prayer Breakfast on Inauguration Day as part of her efforts.
How was she able to curry this influence? For two years before writing her proposal, "U.S. PERSON 1" introduced her to major Republicans all around the country as she gained support for "Right to Bear Arms," the Russian gun control group she founded. This thread from Moms Demand founder Shannon Watts depicts Butina with Republicans such as Wisconsin governor Scott Walker (below), Sheriff David Clarke, NRA lobbyist Wayne LaPierre, and even Donald Trump, who she questioned on Russian sanctions at a press conference in 2015 (not pictured: Dana Rohrabacher, who met with Butina on a 2015 visit to Moscow.)
Butina even managed to capture one of these men on film, endorsing Right to Bear Arms. In 2013, current National Security Adviser John Bolton filmed a video supporting her group. "Today, you are engaged in a historic debate about the possible expansion of your freedoms," he says, "should the Russian people have the right to bear arms," before spouting three minutes of nonsense about the history of the Second Amendment.
Butina's video dropped online nearly five years ago without much of a fuss, but in light of her arrest and Cohen's premiere, it feels eerily prescient now. Both understood the power of the gun lobby over the Republican Party and used it to their advantage, but Cohen did it to ridicule, while Butina did it to target easy marks for influence. The timing of these two events is just a coincidence, but it's an eerie one at that, and it reminds us of the unprecedented corruptibility of the most dangerous political party in American history.