President Donald J. 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 February 2 prayer breakfast, a networking forum for US political and business leaders. Trump spoke at the event, upholding a presidential tradition that dates back to Dwight D. Eisenhower.
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 US-led Nato military alliance.
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.
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.
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 US-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 spokesman for Massie, Rohrabacher’s congressional colleague, declined to comment on the dinner with the Russians aside from confirming his attendance.