In retrospect, it was weird.
On a mid-July day at National Rifle Association headquarters, NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre gathered with top officials from the gun group’s lobbying arm for a frank conversation. Turmoil had rocked the organization for months, reaching a zenith with the resignation of top lobbyist Chris Cox, who for years had helmed the NRA’s Institute for Legislative Affairs (ILA). The association had grown balkanized, with top staff torn between LaPierre and Cox. And with the LaPierre camp on the march, Cox loyalists had reason to be nervous about their job security.
So LaPierre sought to reassure the senior ILA officials who gathered that day, according to two people familiar with the meeting. He said ILA was “moving forward” and that staff there would have a “clean slate.” His message, which attendees then relayed to their subordinates, was simple: People could breathe easy about their jobs, and things were stabilizing. His message was wrong.
Just days later, news broke that Jennifer Baker—who spent years as the communications director for ILA and was part of Cox’s small inner circle—was out. Baker’s departure shocked many Republican insiders, who had long seen her as a fixture in the organization. An NRA spokesperson told CNN Baker had been ousted because the association had conducted “a reorganization of its public affairs function,” implying she had been rendered redundant. Politico reported, however, that she had been helping plan its electoral strategy.
Reached for comment, the NRA highlighted the statement that CNN had quoted.
“The NRA would not be inclined to discuss private business meetings, but it was reported that on July 16, 2019 that the NRA announced a reorganization of its public affairs function,” the NRA said in a statement. “Jennifer, as you know, worked in public affairs for ILA. At the time, it was announced that, according to the NRA: ‘The NRA announced a reorganization of its public affairs function this week. The change consolidates and improves our communications, public affairs, and social media functions. All these operations now operate under one department, eliminating a parallel function in NRA-ILA. We are excited about the change and the benefits it brings to the organization and its members.’”
LaPierre’s abortive effort to calm employees’ nerves crystallized the confusion and bewilderment that grips NRA officials.
And the uncertainty could hardly come at a worse time. The association faces a host of challenges: New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has intimated to financial institutions that they could face legal trouble if they work with the NRA, so some have pulled away from the association. In response, the NRA sued, with an assist from the ACLU.
The association also faces a number of investigations. The Senate Intelligence Committee has scrutinized the group as part of its probe into Russian influence in the 2016 campaign, and Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR)—the top Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee—has obtained documents from NRA officials as part of his own investigation of the group. Meanwhile, attorneys general in New York and Washington, D.C., have launched their own probes of the association.
Then there are the dueling lawsuits between the NRA and its ex-PR firm, Ackerman McQueen. Both demand tens of millions from each other and allege major wrongdoing. All those legal problems bring big legal bills.
The legal bills have become a problem in and of themselves. Oliver North, who was president of the group until stepping down in April after a fight with LaPierre, has alleged that the association’s outside lawyers are billing it nearly $100,000 a day. NRA officials, including LaPierre, stand by those lawyers. But the bills are still piling up.
At the same time, the association’s fundraising has struggled. Allegations of financial mismanagement—including hundreds of thousands of dollars spent on LaPierre’s wardrobe—have angered gun rights activists and some major donors. On top of that, activists are less worried about the Second Amendment’s future given Republican control of the Senate and White House, which makes them less inclined to donate. The result: The NRA has brought in $55 million less in 2017 than it did in 2016.
Meanwhile, the gun group’s opponents are as energized as ever—due in large part to a recent spate of horrific mass shootings, including the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and the white supremacist terror attack in El Paso.
The El Paso attack—followed hours later by a mass shooting in Dayton, Ohio—jarred Trump administration officials and appears to have jarred the president himself. Trump claimed on Tuesday afternoon that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell supports expanded background checks, and McConnell himself has telegraphed some openness to stricter gun laws. LaPierre had a phone call with Trump last week and tried to dissuade him from tightening background checks. But without his top lobbyist, Cox, his government affairs shop is hobbled.
That doesn’t mean new gun laws are guaranteed—far from it. And, ironically, the NRA will likely cash in on the fight, telling disaffected donors that it’s the only group that can keep Republicans in line. It’s an argument that has opened wallets for years.
But for that argument to work, LaPierre needs credibility with donors. And he just bashed his credibility with his own lobbyists.