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The Spanish connection with Trump’s Russia scandal

Alexander Torshin, deputy governor of the Central Bank of Russia and investigated in Spain for money laundering, has infiltrated the US president’s circle

Trump speaks to Putin from the White House on January 28.
Trump speaks to Putin from the White House on January 28. GETTY

On February 1, Alexander Porfirievich Torshin, 63, a Russian politician and banker who is close to Vladimir Putin and whom the Spanish anti-corruption prosecutor and the Civil Guard define in their reports as a godfather from a notorious Russian mafia organization, had in his diary for the next day an appointment to meet in Washington with the world’s most powerful man: Donald Trump. The encounter was due to take place before an official and well-attended breakfast meeting, which Torshin attended as the head of a Russian delegation. The meeting was canceled that very night, according to sources from the White House, given the wave of criticism in the US press related to the influence of certain Russian circles in President Trump’s power teams. But the information reveals the heights to which this person, who has been investigated by the Spanish authorities, had reached in his rise to the upper echelons of the American leader’s circle.

Torshin, who is currently the deputy governor of the Central Bank of Russia, has met with one of the children of the US president, has close links with the organization that provided the most money for Trump’s election campaign, the National Rifle Association (NRA), and attended the aforementioned breakfast that Donald Trump presided over in the White House in February.

The Spanish reports describe Torshin as a “godfather” of a Russian mafia group

The high-ranking official from the Central Bank of Russia has long been on the radar of the Spanish public prosecutor and the Civil Guard. He was on the brink of being arrested in Palma de Mallorca in the summer of 2013 during a meeting with a mafioso – who has just been sentenced in Spain – but he didn’t turn up to the meeting. A unit consisting of 12 officers was awaiting him at the airport and in a hotel, where he was expected to arrive accompanied by other people being investigated in a money-laundering ring. The Russian Federation’s Prosecutor General, aware that Torshin was being investigated, requested information about the case on at least two occasions, but received no response from the Spanish authorities given that the investigation was sealed.

His case constitutes another element in the laying of the foundation for the FBI investigation currently being conducted into the influence of the Russian government in the outcome of the US presidential elections last year. The political offensive by Torshin appears to form part of a strategy by the Kremlin aimed at influencing the internal policies of the United States. One of the most spectacular results of this apparent strategy was the mass hack of the internal communications of the campaign for Hillary Clinton, Trump’s rival, which was made public by WikiLeaks, according to the US intelligence services. Over the last year, a number of trusted allies of Trump have been forced to resign given their shady contacts with Russia. The most recent was his national security advisor, Michael Flynn, on February 13.

The difference in the case of Torshin is that for the first time, a Russian mafia boss – at least one identified as such by the Spanish anti-corruption prosecutor – is within the circle of support of the new president of the United States.

One of Putin’s trusted allies

There is no evidence that leads to the conclusion that Alexander Torshin is currently working for Putin’s intelligence services. But there are certain links. According to sources from the British intelligence services with whom EL PAÍS has spoken, Torshin has formed part of a select anti-terrorist committee from the Russian government, over which the chief of the Federal Security Service – formerly known as the KGB – presides.

But there can be no doubt that Putin trusts Torshin: he occupies a delicate and powerful post in the Central Bank, he is one of the main voices of United Russia in the senate, he was chosen as the head of a Russian delegation to the White House, and he is a member of a government committee dedicated to the fight against drug trafficking. What’s more, Putin tasked him with an extremely sensitive mission in 2005, at a time of high political risk for the Russian president: as the head of the parliamentary commission that investigated the response of the security forces to the terrorist attack in Beslan.

It was in September 2004 when a 30-strong terrorist group seized a school in Beslan, in North Ossetia, taking all of the teachers and students hostage. The siege ended three days later with the intervention of the Russian security forces, and the deaths of 331 people, 186 of whom were children. In Russia the incident sparked bitter controversy over the competence of the security forces and shook confidence in the Kremlin.

To end this controversy, Putin assigned a parliamentary commission to investigate the incident, and put Torshin in charge of it. His report, which was made public in December 2005, absolved the national security forces and blamed the local authorities in Beslan for not having done enough to contain the tragedy.

Afterwards, the all-powerful Putin did not forget Torshin, rewarding him for his loyalty. And Torshin has not hesitated from using the political and financial power given to him by Putin to establish links with the Taganskaya and reward himself. 

As well as being a powerful banker, a leader of President Putin’s political party (United Russia) and his trusted ally, and a senator between 2001 and 2015 (in addition to being chairman of the upper house of the Russian parliament between May 19 and September 21, 2011), he is, according to the investigation carried out by the Spanish security forces, also a boss of a notorious criminal organization known as Taganskaya.

The relationship between Torshin and Alexander Romanov, a Russian mafioso based in Palma de Mallorca, is the key. An investigation carried out between 2012 and 2013 by a Palma court and the anti-corruption prosecutors José Grinda and Juan Carrau into Romanov concluded that Torshin was the boss of a Taganskaya criminal operation which laundered money by buying up hotels in Mallorca. A total of 33 telephone conversations between Torshin and Romanov, to which EL PAÍS has had access, reveal that their relationship is not “purely social,” as Torshin claims, but rather based on business.

An internal document from the Civil Guard Information Service, dated July 2013, explains Torshin’s central role in the criminal plot. “As a consequence of the phone tapping carried out in the aforementioned inquiries it has been ratified that, above Romanov, on a higher hierarchical level, is Alexander Torshin. In the numerous phone conversations and with different contact persons, Alexander Romanov himself recognized his subordination before someone who he describes as ‘the Godfather’ or ‘the boss’ ... which in itself is telling when it comes to situating their relationship.”

The Spanish police followed Torshin, but he managed to slip away: three judicial and police sources from the investigation have confirmed that Torshin decided not to attend Romanov’s birthday party on August 21, 2013 as planned, because – they believe – he was warned by the Russian prosecutor that if he stepped onto Spanish soil he would be arrested. “The liaison from the Russian Interior Ministry in Madrid had written a report about the Taganskaya and we believe that in Russia they put the screws on him. We suspect that it was him who warned that Torshin was being investigated in Spain and that was why he didn’t come,” a judicial source explains. “The case had not been completed and we could not give out that information,” explains another judicial source. “Russia also discovered that we were investigating Torshin because Romanov’s lawyers told the Russian prosecutor as much in writing and they complained saying that they were being persecuted in Spain.”

The confidential report, which is not to be found in the legal case, points to the connection between the Russian state and the Russian mafia. “The criminal organizations from the countries of the East have as their main characteristics the penetration of different state powers, such as politics, which is represented in this case by the figure of the First Vice-chairman of the Federation Council of the Federal Assembly of the Russian Federation, Alexander Porfirievich Torshin.” The five-page document, entitled Alexander Porfirievich Torshin in Operation Dirieba, was produced so that the Anti-Corruption Public Prosecutor could decide whether or not to charge Torshin with the laundering of more than €14 million in the purchase of a hotel in Mallorca, and concludes that both the money and the hotel belonged to the Russian ex-politician. It even claims that the hotel forms part of the inheritance that Torshin wants to leave to his two daughters.

Torshin had a private meeting with Trump planned, which was later canceled

Why was Torshin not prosecuted? “It made no sense to charge Torshin because Russia does not process letters rogatory [requests for legal assistance from abroad] that we file with that country and there would have been no practical purpose: it would have delayed the investigation, it would have slowed it down,” explains a clearly irritated judicial source. “Calling on Russia to arrest him would have been useless because Russia does not cooperate. This summer there will be a trial in Spain in the Troika case – against the Russian mafia in Spain. There are a number of fugitives in Russia and they won’t hand them over to us. We don’t have the support of the Russian authorities.”

The formidable and powerful Taganskaya organization of which Torshin is allegedly part is recognized by the US and the EU information and intelligence services (including Europol and the FBI), according to the dossier about Torshin from the Spanish Civil Guard. Its activities include the appropriation of companies using violent or fraudulent methods, bank scams, extortion and the carrying out of contract killings.

Informal contacts: Alexander Torshin’s version of events

Alexander Torshin has denied to EL PAÍS having any commercial relationship with Alexandor Romanov, the Russian mafioso who was sentenced in Spain for money laundering. His statement to the newspaper reads:

“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.

“As a Deputy Governor of the Bank of Russia, Mr Torshin is not responsible for the Bank of Russia’s international relations, he has never represented the Bank of Russia at official meetings with representatives of foreign states and international organizations. Over the past 12 years, Mr Torshin has privately attended the Prayer Breakfast hosted by US presidents. 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.”

The point of entry for Torshin to the upper echelons of US politics was the National Rifle Association (NRA), which is perhaps the most powerful lobby in the United States. The NRA invested more than $21 million in Trump’s election campaign, more than any other organization. According to the group’s official magazine, the NRA proclaimed itself to be “the key” to the Trump victory.

Torshin has managed to become a “life member” of the NRA. He is also linked to the Russian group The Right to Bear Arms, which was created in 2012 and copies the objectives of the NRA. It is presided over by Maria Butina, a young admirer of Putin who has had a meteoric career by Torshin’s side, and who now resides in Washington. Butina celebrated her birthday with a costume party in the US capital on November 12 last year, four days after the presidential elections. According to the press in Washington, the main reason for the celebration was the election victory of Donald Trump. Among the guests were a number of the new president’s campaign consultants.

The first direct contact between Torshin, an “honorary member” of the Russian pro-arms group, and the NRA took place in May 2013. Torshin traveled to the annual NRA convention in Houston. He himself wrote about this in an article published eight months later in the Washington Times, a pro-Trump daily, whose Opinion section editor, David Keene, was president of the NRA and is a friend of Torshin.

At that time, Torshin was a Russian senator. But his political career was on the rise. In January 2015 he was named deputy governor of the Central Bank of Russia. And one of his first measures was to designate Butina “personal executive assistant.” Some months later, on December 11, 2015, the pro-arms group presided over by Butina invited a delegation from the NRA, nearly all Trump acolytes, to an event in Moscow. Torshin gave the welcome speech.

In May 2016, in the midst of the US electoral campaign, Torshin traveled once more to the NRA convention, which was celebrated this time in Louisville, Kentucky. Trump, who was, by that point, the de facto Republican candidate to the presidency, attended the annual event run by his main benefactors. While there, Torshin had fleeting contact with the future president, who only went so far as to shake his hand. With his son, Donald Trump Jr., things went further: he sat by his side during a private dinner in a restaurant in Kentucky.

The Civil Guard was preparing an operation in 2013 to arrest him

The rise of Torshin in the upper circles of the United States continued to progress. When Trump, a self-declared admirer of Putin, arrived in office, Torshin was invited to an official breakfast at the White House scheduled for February 2, along with other guests. The event was later to be remembered thanks to Trump’s jibes aimed at Arnold Schwarzenegger. Torshin traveled there as the head of a Russian delegation. Together with the invitation, Torshin received a proposal for a meeting with the president just before the breakfast, according to Yahoo News, which contributed to this article. This meeting was suddenly cancelled. The reason, according to sources from the White House, was the rumors and suspicions about which all of Washington is now talking: the links between Trump’s political team and Moscow. The White House gave no official explanation for the cancellation. Maria Butina, who attended gala dinners to celebrate Trump’s inauguration, confirmed to Yahoo News in an email that the notification of the cancellation of the meeting between her boss and the president arrived the night before the breakfast.

During that visit to Washington, Torshin did have dinner with two Republican congressmen. The date was February 1 in a French restaurant, according to an article published in Time magazine earlier in March, and at which Maria Butina and a close friend of Trump White House strategist Stephen Bannon were also present.

The apparent mission by Torshin to infiltrate the highest spheres of power worked. And the Russian connection continues to create intrigue in Washington. As the veteran columnist Thomas Friedman wrote last month in the New York Times: “[...] the biggest national security question staring us in the face today: What is going on between Donald Trump and the Russians?” After the investigations by the Spanish judicial authorities and the police into the banker, politician and mafia godfather Alexander Torshin there are more unanswered questions today, and more scandals in Washington to be investigated.

Mike Isikoff from Yahoo News in Washington contributed reporting to this article.

English version by Simon Hunter.