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‘The NRA is in grave danger’: group's troubles are blow to Trump's 2020 bid

As the NRA faces a New York inquiry and internal power struggle, analysts say it will not have the financial resources to match its 2016 election magic

As a fractious National Rifle Association (NRA) annual meeting was winding down last week, Donald Trump implored his political allies at the gun rights group in a tweet to “stop the internal fighting” involving charges of financial misconduct by top leaders and “get back to GREATNESS – FAST!”

The president is likely right to be worried by the NRA’s travails. His tweet seemed to signal concerns about whether the once all-powerful group would again spend tens of millions of dollars to back him in the 2020 election as it did so effectively during his 2016 win, say NRA veterans and gun rights analysts.

Trump’s tweet, coming just days after he made an unprecedented third speech as president to the NRA annual convention, also blasted a new investigation by New York’s attorney general, Letitia James, into allegations of financial improprieties at the 5 million-member NRA. The tweet charged James and New York’s governor, Andrew Cuomo, were “illegally using the state’s legal apparatus to take down and destroy this very important organization”, which has been battered by recent back-to-back yearly losses totaling $64m.

NRA stalwarts say Trump’s Twitter call to end the organization’s internal battle royale – which featured charges of insider self dealing involving its CEO and president – and focus on legal and financial threats, suggests that Trump is hoping to bank again on the NRA’s grassroots political and financial muscle boosting his re-election fortunes.

“The NRA has been a very important ally for Trump, and going into re-election it’s a critical group to have firing on all cylinders,” said Saul Anuzis, a lifetime NRA member and an ex-Michigan Republican party chairman. “It would be logical for the president and his campaign to have concerns moving forward about how effective an ally the NRA will be because of the infighting and legal threats from the New York [attorney general].”

Former NRA spokesman John Aquilino agreed that NRA support for Trump could be crucial in 2020, but may be endangered by all the turmoil.

“The reality is that the NRA absolutely helped Trump get elected, and probably to an extent greater than most people realize,” Aquilino said “The strongest NRA states are the swing states. Trump realizes that NRA support in those swing states is more important than political party affiliation for winning.” Trump’s tweet, he added, amounted to “telling the children to stop throwing food across the table at each other and get down to business”.

Likewise, veteran GOP operative and lobbyist Charlie Black said Trump’s Twitter message was logical.

“Naturally, he would encourage them [the NRA] to unify and be effective,” Black said. “The NRA was a key partner in Trump’s coalition in 2016, and I’m sure he’s counting on them to be a key part of the 2020 coalition.”

Trump’s 2020 political prospects are expected to turn in part on the NRA repeating what it did in 2016 to back his then long shot candidacy. The NRA spent a record $30m-plus on ads supporting Trump and mobilized its field operations in critical midwestern swing states where the gun lobby has strong grassroots, helping Trump prevail despite losing the popular vote by 3 million.

The NRA reported that it spent $54.4m on the 2016 elections to the Federal Election Commission (FEC). But two NRA sources with ties to the organization’s board told McClatchy last year that the NRA’s total spending in 2016 was at least $70m, a figure that includes spending on its field operations to mobilize voters and online ads, neither of which have to be reported to the FEC.

Outside analysts who have tracked the NRA and gun issues are dubious the organization will now recover enough from its current crisis to spend as lavishly and have a similar impact in 2020.

“For the NRA to be an important player in national politics, it needs to have a visible presence in electioneering,” said Robert Spitzer, a political science professor at State University of New York College at Cortland who has written five books on guns issues. “But given their money and legal woes, that is highly unlikely, meaning that the NRA’s issues and goals will be marginalized in the elections to come.”

Spitzer predicted that unlike 2016, the NRA “will not have the money or resources for 2020 to be an important presence”.

That view could prove overly dire, but if the NRA’s weak spending and poor showing in the 2018 midterm elections is any guide, the organization may well have a tough time next year matching its 2016 election magic.

When Democrats regained the House in the 2018 elections, the NRA’s spending was an anemic $9.4m, only about a third of what it spent in the 2014 midterms. For the first time ever, the NRA was outspent by pro-gun control groups.

The group’s lackluster spending in 2018 was at least partly attributable to big financial losses the group posted in 2016 and 2017 that combined for a total $64m.

The NRA declined to comment on whether its legal and financial problems would impact political spending in 2020.

All that red ink and the 2018 election results were the backdrop for the NRA’s internal battles at its recent convention. Wayne LaPierre, the group’s fiery veteran CEO whose $1m-plus annual salary has rankled some NRA members, faced charges of mismanagement from retired Lt Col Ollie North, the NRA president and a key player in the 1980’s Iran-Contra scandal

But North drew fire, too, over a seven-figure contract he reportedly had with NRATV and charges by LaPierre that North was trying to extort him by giving a “devastating account” of the NRA’s financial condition unless he stepped down.

Still, by convention’s end, the public bloodletting seemed to have subsided. LaPierre effectively ousted North, who announced he would not seek the customary second year as NRA president. And the NRA board, meeting in closed session, re-elected LaPierre, who survived a resolution by some NRA members to sack him too.

The NRA’s financial and legal problems, however, are widely expected to remain drags on the group for some time to come, say NRA insiders and analysts. Last month, the NRA sued its longtime ad agency Ackerman McQueen, which several years ago launched NRATV and was paid a whopping $40m in 2017, a sum that some NRA members and watchdogs view as exorbitant and helped fuel the litigation.

Filed in Virginia, the NRA suit is seeking large caches of documents to determine if Oklahoma-based Ackerman, which has been a major vendor to the NRA for over three decades and a key force in shaping NRA messages, was overbilling the NRA or spending improperly.

“The Ackerman suit is going to roil the NRA for a while if it proceeds,” said one GOP source with NRA ties.

And a former NRA lobbyist with board ties added that in light of the NRA’s recent red ink and the New York inquiry, “the NRA is now in grave danger”.

The investigation by James could be fatal if she determines there has been financial misconduct. The attorney general’s office oversees not-for-profits, including the NRA, which was founded in New York in 1871 and is still chartered there, and has the authority to compel the NRA to dissolve or require repayment of funds improperly obtained.

NRA lawyer Bill Brewer has said that the group will cooperate with James, as well as a new request for documents by three Democrats on the Senate finance committee, which has jurisdiction over tax exempts and is looking into similar allegations, as the Washington Post first reported.

To Aquilino, the group’s growing problems stem partly from the hefty salaries of LaPierre and other top executives, coupled with the high Ackerman fees. “The NRA has become part of the Washington swamp where people look out for themselves and their buddies, as opposed to the constitution,” Aquilino said. “The dollar sign has replaced the constitution as the emblem of the NRA management.”

Those stinging words, in tandem with the NRA’s legal and financial woes, might help explain why Trump tweeted that the NRA “must get its act together quickly”.


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