The National Rifle Association was already reeling from leadership shakeups and allegations of financial mismanagement when it dropped another bombshell.
The NRA accused Chris Cox – the man who had controlled the organization’s lobbying and political activities for more than 15 years – of trying to overthrow Chief Executive Wayne LaPierre, according to a lawsuit filed last month.
Cox denied the charge to The New York Times, but quickly resigned. His unceremonious sacking stunned NRA board members, who saw Cox as a potential successor to LaPierre, and infuriated political staffers. Some started packing up their desks, unsure of whether they would be ousted too, multiple NRA sources said.
That’s when the Washington power brokers really started to worry. Cox’s departure, after months of turmoil at the NRA, only amplified the sense that the gun-rights group might not be the political powerhouse in 2020 that it has been for decades, including notably in 2016.
When President Donald Trump convened a meeting with bipartisan lawmakers and signaled and openness to some gun control measures in the wake of a shooting at a high school in Parkland, Florida, that left 17 dead, it was Cox who showed up at the White House the following evening.
Afterward, Cox tweeted that Trump didn’t want gun control. For his part, Trump tweeted: “Good (Great) meeting in the Oval Office tonight with the NRA!”
The reservoir of goodwill toward Cox ran deep on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue.
“Every Republican senator who matters has Chris’ cell phone number,” one GOP operative who worked closely with Cox on the political side told CNN. “And vice versa.”
The operative recounted one meeting between Cox and a senator, ostensibly about a policy issue, that instead was focused primarily on the senator’s favorite hunting grounds in his home state. Cox knew them all in advance – and had been to them himself.
Cox and his team held weekly calls with Republican committees to share tips about ongoing campaigns – calls that increased in frequency in the lead-up to key primaries and Election Day, according to former officials.
“Senators didn’t call Wayne,” the GOP operative said of LaPierre. “They called Chris.”
That’s partly because it was Cox’s job to maintain those contacts, while LaPierre oversaw the organization. Cox has moved on to launch his own Washington consulting firm. But unease over his departure – and LaPierre’s efforts to consolidate power – is fueling uncertainty about the direction of the organization overall.
An alleged coup-gone-wrong
The NRA’s dysfunction exploded into a public spectacle at the group’s annual meeting April in Indianapolis. That’s where LaPierre accused then-NRA President Oliver North of trying to extort him.
North had allegedly demanded that LaPierre step down as CEO and continue to support North as NRA president – “or be smeared,” according to LaPierre’s letter to the board and court filings.
North had one more demand: Drop a pending lawsuit against Ackerman McQueen.
Weeks earlier, the NRA had sued Ackerman, its longtime advertising partner, claiming the firm was refusing to hand over documentation of its expenses.
For nearly 40 years, Ackerman had crafted the NRA’s marketing strategy, planned and placed media, “including advertising during election cycles,” and operated the controversial NRATV, according to court filings. Over the years, Ackerman hired personnel to work on the NRA’s account, like NRA spokesperson Dana Loesch.
“The NRA and Ackerman have collaborated fruitfully for decades. Together, the parties crafted iconic, impactful Second Amendment messaging that featured Charlton Heston … and other important constitutional rights advocates,” the NRA wrote in its lawsuit. “However, the NRA’s patience has run out.”
Ackerman was also paying North.
Instead of acquiescing to North’s demands, LaPierre told the board he was the victim of an attempted coup. LaPierre kept his perch as CEO. North was effectively ousted as president.
“The NRA does not take kindly to threats – and neither did LaPierre,” the NRA wrote in a court filing.
North, in a court filing, denied that he was involved in a plot to overthrow LaPierre.
Embarrassing revelations started spilling out in court filings and in a cache of letters and invoices anonymously posted online and substantiated by sources familiar with them.
On top of the $40 million annually that the NRA was allegedly shelling out to Ackerman (a sum Ackerman disputes), other questionable expenses came to light.
“We realized during these discussions that we need to address your wardrobe you required us to provide, specifically, purchases at the Zegna store in Beverly Hills, CA,” one of the letters from Ackerman McQueen to LaPierre that was posted online stated. It cited nearly $275,000 in purchases from the high-end Italian clothier.
Members were paying attention.
“I’m not sure why Wayne needs somebody to buy his clothes for him, he makes a very nice salary,” said Dan Zimmerman, managing editor of The Truth About Guns website and a member of the NRA.
LaPierre earned more than $1.4 million from the NRA and related organizations in 2017, according to the non-profit’s latest filing with the IRS.
In a new court filing Thursday, North said he wanted outside professionals look into potential financial mismanagement within the NRA. Instead, LaPierre retaliated by having North removed from his role as president and board member, North alleges in the filing.
“LaPierre – demonstrating his total dictatorial control over the NRA … stopped all of North’s inquiries and prevented others at the NRA from looking into the concerns that North raised,” according to the court filing from North’s legal team.
The NRA defended LaPierre’s spending in court filings, noting that the clothing purchases were for filming commercials and other business-related activities.
“Of course, AMc should not have incurred (let alone sought reimbursement for) any expenses which it believed inappropriate,” the NRA shot back.
Letters from Ackerman McQueen also pointed to more than $240,000 LaPierre had billed to the advertising agency for trips to destinations including Italy, Hungary and the Bahamas. A letter also questioned why LaPierre had required Ackerman McQueen to pick up a nearly $14,000 tab to rent an apartment for a summer intern.
The NRA said the trips were business related and had been vetted by the finance and audit committees. It said the apartment was provided to the intern because the customary intern housing through a local university was unavailable.
All of these expenses came on top of a sharp decline in revenue in 2017. An NRA source said those numbers improved in 2018, but did not provide details.
The biggest expense at issue, though, were legal fees. In a letter that was posted online, North wrote to top NRA officials to express his concern that the organization had paid Brewer Attorneys & Counselors $24 million over the past 13 months.
“The Brewer invoices are draining NRA cash at mindboggling speed,” North wrote. He requested an outside, independent review of the legal fees.
The NRA threw its support behind the Brewer law firm. Charles L. Cotton, the chairman of the NRA’s Audit Committee, wrote in a statement that North’s memo “reflects a misinformed view of the firm, its billings, and its advocacy for the NRA.”
It is clear the NRA has legal problems: It is suing Ackerman McQueen, it is suing Oliver North and it is under investigation by Congress. New York Attorney General Letitia James is probing the NRA’s finances, which could put the NRA’s nonprofit status in jeopardy. Plus, the NRA is fighting a separate legal battle in New York after the governor cracked down on banks and insurers doing business with the NRA – a response to the NRA-backed “Carry Guard” liability insurance program for gun owners.
“The NRA is under siege by Cuomo and the New York State A.G., who are illegally using the State’s legal apparatus to take down and destroy this very important organization, & others,” Trump tweeted in April. “It must get its act together quickly, stop the internal fighting, & get back to GREATNESS - FAST!”
Meanwhile all of this news has delighted the NRA’s critics.
“It’s like watching a five-alarm fire, but what’s amazing about this is the NRA itself lit the match,” said John Feinblatt, president of Everytown for Gun Safety.
Democrats take aim at the NRA
The NRA is up against a different political landscape in 2020 than the one it faced four years ago.
Democratic presidential hopefuls took to the debate stage openly talking about banning assault weapons, instituting universal background checks and taking on the NRA.
They are emboldened, in part, by public sentiment. In May 2019, 61% of voters said they supporter stricter gun laws, compared to 34% who opposed them, according to a Quinnipiac University poll.
But Democrats have also been bolstered by gun control groups that are emerging as more formidable opponents to the gun rights movement. In the 2018 midterms, gun control groups actually outspent the NRA.
“Gun safety is going to be a defining issue for 2020,” Feinblatt said. “The gun safety movement has never been stronger and the gun rights movement has never been weaker.”
For its part, the NRA is more than happy to be underestimated.
“We are very focused on 2020,” said NRA spokesman Andrew Arulanandam. “Our members know what’s at stake from draconian gun control schemes, from gun confiscation to registration, so they will be out in force and the NRA will make sure of it.”
“Disillusioned and disgruntled” members
Ideally, though, an internal war at the nation’s preeminent gun rights group wouldn’t be spilling into public view in the run-up to a presidential election.
“To the extent that these controversies combined with a huge drain on the organization’s resources and time distract it, that’s a negative for gun rights in the United States,” said Zimmerman, the gun website editor.
Last month, the NRA and Ackerman officially severed ties amid their bitter court battle. NRATV, an Ackerman production, was among the casualties.
The streaming programming was divisive, expensive and little-watched, according to viewer data obtained by The New York Times. In an episode needling the diversity among the talking trains in children’s show “Thomas & Friends,” NRATV portrayed the trains in Ku Klux Klan hoods. Hosts have lamented that “men are getting less masculine” and that immigrant detention centers “if anything, are too nice.”
The NRA has no plans to revive the programming. It noted in one court filing that “certain NRA stakeholders were also concerned that NRATV’s messaging – on topics far afield of the Second Amendment – deviated from the NRA’s core mission and values.”
A source familiar with the situation said the NRA also has no plans to bring Dana Loesch, NRATV’s frontwoman, back into the NRA fold.
That may not be enough to satisfy some NRA members, who believe the NRA has embraced the conservative movement so fully that it has driven away any non-Republican gun owners.
“Many of us feel they stopped being a lobbying organization and started being a lifestyle brand,” said Rob Pincus, who described himself as a “disillusioned and disgruntled” lifetime member of the NRA. “You’ve got a lot of angry and concerned American gun owners who are demanding change.”
Some board members, including former Florida congressman Allen West, publicly called for a change in leadership. At least one donor told The New York Times on the record that he was interested in leading a rebellion. Other grassroots members are trying to encourage their fellow Second Amendment advocates to quit paying dues to the NRA and redirect their money and their time to other gun rights groups.
“I just simply do not understand the people who seem to think Wayne LaPierre is the NRA,” said Jeff Knox, a lifetime NRA member. “The NRA is not the gun lobby. We are. We the people, we the members. We’re the source of the power, we’re the source of their money, we’re the source of their influence.”
Strength in numbers
On at least that point, everyone agrees. Lawmakers, NRA leadership and grassroots Second Amendment supporters all say the NRA derives its power from its membership roll.
“You all think it’s about cutting checks – and don’t get me wrong, they do,” one national GOP official said of the media perception of the NRA’s strength. “But it’s the membership that scares congressman and senators. You get on the wrong side of that and you’re f—–.”
A well-functioning NRA can direct a large, motivated membership to support its chosen candidates and causes, delivering at the polls but also pressuring lawmakers when gun issues come up legislatively.
“It goes well beyond saying ‘hey, go vote for this candidate,’” a Republican senator who worked with Cox told CNN. “They do persuasion work, they do get-out-the-vote work, hell they’ll tell their folks how, where and when to vote in primaries, which has been a tremendous help for some of us.”
The fear of angering those members still stands. Lawmakers and other GOP officials interviewed for this story were almost universally reluctant to go on the record out of concern of running afoul of the organization and its allies. So long as the family feud continues, “it’s better to publicly stay out of it,” the senator said.
Privately is a different story, however. Republicans and both chambers have raised concerns to their respective campaign arms as the election cycle has started to kick into gear.
Even in disarray – even when some subset of the members is furious with the NRA’s management – it doesn’t mean those members are likely to turn around and vote for whoever emerges at the Democratic nominee.
The Trump reelection campaign, meanwhile, is far from the flung-together apparatus of 2016. In the second quarter of 2019, the Trump campaign and the Republican National Committee raised a combined $108 million.
A Trump campaign source noted that the campaign won’t need to rely on the NRA’s war chest the way it did in 2016. That year the NRA spent more than $30 million backing Trump, more than it spent on all of its races combined – presidential, House and Senate – in the 2008 and 2012 elections, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
The NRA source said the group would spend “whatever is needed” to win in 2020, despite its other financial challenges.
“At an absolute worst-case scenario, all this means is the NRA can’t spend money like they did last time,” said Knox, one of the lifetime members. “I don’t think it’s the tragedy that the Democrats are hoping for.”
CNN’s Dana Bash contributed to this report.