At the National Rifle Association’s annual meeting in Indianapolis in late April, President Trump stood backstage and chatted with Chris Cox, then the gun group’s top lobbyist, and Wayne LaPierre, its longtime executive and public-facing culture warrior.
The NRA had spent massive amounts of money to help get Trump elected in 2016, and the president views the organization as one of his top reservoirs of support. And he’s kept close tabs on its internal dramas and gossip, according to two sources close to Trump. As the men talked, their conversation turned to the topic of turmoil over money matters that has roiled the group for months. According to two sources familiar with the conversation, Trump pointedly told Cox and LaPierre that they needed to get themselves better lawyers. One of the sources, who was present at the time, said Trump referred to the NRA’s legal team as “lousy.” The second source said the remark rattled LaPierre.
Shortly after that, the president took the stage at the annual gathering to roaring applause, and bragged to the crowd of Second Amendment enthusiasts that he had defeated a deep-state coup attempt against his presidency, all without the help of a firearm.
The legal turmoil the president noticed that day has persisted—part of a bitter internecine battle that has nearly brought the group to its knees. And now, with growing public demand for tougher gun laws in the wake of two mass shootings, the NRA is trying to keep the president in line with depleted resources and talent.
In response to the murder of 31 people in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, Trump has intimated that he might favor legislation expanding background-check requirements for gun purchases. The NRA has long opposed those efforts. So, soon enough, LaPierre was on the phone with Trump, encouraging him to walk back that stance, as The Washington Post first reported and The Daily Beast confirmed.
But Trump may not be the gun rights group’s only Republican problem.
On Thursday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) said legislation to expand background checks would be “front and center as we see what we can come together on and pass.” Those comments hinted a notable change from McConnell’s past stances. After the Senate rejected a bill to expand background checks in 2013, the then-minority leader posted a meme mocking Democrats’ defeat.
In one image, McConnell made a zero sign with his hands. “You can have this much gun control,” it read, above a photo of a despondent Harry Reid.
McConnell’s office declined to elaborate on his Thursday comments. The Kentucky Republican also said the Senate will not return during the August recess—affirming he won’t move immediately on an effort to impose background checks. But even absent a Senate vote, the debate is moving.
On Thursday, Trump held separate calls with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA). The two urged him to push McConnell to take up a more ambitious background check proposal than the Senate has considered in the past.
“The President gave us his assurances that he would review the bipartisan House-passed legislation and understood our interest in moving as quickly as possible to help save lives,” a joint statement from Pelosi and Schumer read.
Trump has offered such vague promises before, without delivering. After the Parkland school massacre last year, the president vowed that he was “going to be very strong on background checks.” But following a pair of private meetings with NRA officials at the White House, he dropped the matter.
NRA leaders are looking to pump the brakes once again. But LaPierre is in an unusually weak position, and his group’s problems have only grown since the day Trump told its top officials to get better lawyers.
Unbeknownst to the president at the time of that meeting, a top NRA official was already sounding the alarm about the group’s outside attorneys. The week before Trump’s speech, Col. Oliver North, then president of the organization, had sent a confidential memo to the NRA general counsel claiming to be “deeply concerned about the extraordinary legal fees the NRA has incurred” from outside attorney Bill Brewer, arguing the hefty bills could cripple the group.
In recent days, NRA officials have praised the Brewer firm’s work. In particular, they credit Brewer with winning the ACLU’s support in litigation the firm brought against New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo. And the law firm in question, Brewer Attorneys & Counselors, defends its work.
“We’re proud of our advocacy on behalf of the NRA,” said William A. Brewer III, who heads the firm, when reached for comment on this story. “We stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the NRA leadership team and the senior members of the board. Of course, we care little about the opinions of those adversaries who seek to undermine the Association.”
The morning after Trump’s speech, North announced he would not seek re-election as NRA president, and parted ways with the group. In the months ahead, the group’s long-brewing power struggles spilled into public view through the course of a court battle that involved competing lawsuits with allegations of media leaks and coup attempts.
Brewer Attorneys & Counselors is in the middle of a bare-knuckle brawl between competing factions of the gun rights space. LaPierre and Brewer have worked together closely to sever the group from Ackerman McQueen, a PR firm that represented the NRA for decades. North, meanwhile, has been aligned with the PR firm, signing a contract with the group to produce content for the now-defunct NRATV, which the firm ran.
Before parting ways with the NRA, North alleged that LaPierre was shielding Brewer’s legal bills—estimated to be $100,000 per day—from an independent audit. Legal experts told The Daily Beast the fees were eye-popping. And The New Yorker recently reported that an NRA accountant blew the whistle on Brewer’s bills before quietly leaving the gun group.
The NRA’s fortunes remain troubled. But on top of everything else, they now have another item on their agenda list: keeping the president in line.