The NRA Civil War: Pitting Grifter Against Grifter

Everything you need to know about the implosion of the NRA.
April 29, 2019
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(Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Even though the adage has been nearly worn out in the Age of Trump, it is probably obligatory to once again quote Eric Hoffer’s observation that “Every great cause begins as a movement, becomes a business, and eventually degenerates into a racket.”

In case you missed it over the weekend, the National Rifle Association degenerated even further—from racket into something that more resembles the Borgia court during one its nastier squabbles. After days of trading charges of grifting, attempted extortion, and swampy corruption, the NRA effectively ousted its president Oliver North, suspended one of its top lawyers, and girded its cash-starved loins for a challenge to its tax exempt status from the New York attorney general’s office.

But, if anything, this rendering of events actually understates the full measure of crazy that is unfolding. As the Daily Beast’s Betsy Woodruff tweeted out:

How bad is it?

Really, really bad. On a cosmic level, the NRA has been hemorrhaging cash for years (running deficits of as much as $40 million a year), may be nearly broke, is losing members, and now faces a formidable legal challenge to its tax exempt status. Axios calls these “existential threats” to the group that has become the id of the Right. And this doesn’t even include its odd entanglements with the Russians. The full NRA board is supposed to meet on Monday to hash all of this out.

What is the internal civil war about?

In one sense it’s a war over nothing; there do not appear to be any significant policy differences behind the battle between long time NRA boss Wayne LaPierre and North. So far, it looks like this feud is mostly about personalities, power, and access to the various grifts. And the grifts are juicy indeed: million dollar salaries, sweet deals for spouses, fat consultant contracts, six-figure wardrobe allowances, and a menagerie of scams all marinated in a culture of deception, secrecy, and greed. Because the Second Amendment.

There are no white knights here, but apparently lots of whistleblowers.

Who fired the first shot?

That’s not completely clear. But let’s review the recent timeline:

On April 15, the Wall Street Journal reported that the NRA had filed a lawsuit against its long time advertising agency, Ackerman McQueen Inc., which the paper described as “an extraordinary public break with the gun-rights group’s largest outside partner.”

If anything that may actually understate the implications of the lawsuit. Two days after the WSJ report, the New Yorker published an extraordinary exposé of the NRA’s lavishly funded descent into self-dealing and buncombe. It described the central role of the Ackerman firm in the rise of the modern NRA:

For more than three decades, Ackerman has shaped the N.R.A.’s public identity, helping to build it from a niche activist organization into a ubiquitous presence in American popular culture. Ackerman produces the N.R.A. magazine America’s 1st Freedom and has devised its most successful ad campaigns, including one called “I’m the N.R.A.,” for which it recruited gun owners, including the actor Tom Selleck and the basketball star Karl Malone, to pose with their weapons.

The relationship between the gun rights group and the advertising firm was beyond incestuous:

The N.R.A. and Ackerman have become so intertwined that it is difficult to tell where one ends and the other begins. Top officials and staff move freely between the two organizations; Oliver North, the former Iran-Contra operative, who now serves as the N.R.A.’s president, is paid roughly a million dollars a year through Ackerman, according to two N.R.A. sources. But this relationship, which in many ways has built the contemporary N.R.A., seems also to be largely responsible for the N.R.A.’s dire financial state.

Even as the group has run deficits in recent years, it has been paying huge sums to Ackerman, including $42.6 million in 2017 alone. The New Yorker story recounts in exquisite detail the “self-dealing and greed” of the NRA insiders. The article was based on both interviews and documents “federal tax forms, charity records, contracts, corporate filings, and internal communications,” that paint a picture of how “a small group of N.R.A. executives, contractors, and vendors has extracted hundreds of millions of dollars from the nonprofit’s budget, through gratuitous payments, sweetheart deals, and opaque financial arrangements.”

What’s the case against Wayne LaPierre?

Last Thursday, LaPierre sent a letter to the NRA board saying that North and his allies were demanding that he resign or be exposed.

Perhaps inspired by the example of Jeff Bezos, LaPierre decided to get ahead of the charges. He said that North’s ultimatum was presented “in the parlance of extortionists, as an offer I couldn’t refuse. I refused it.”

According to LaPierre, North threatened to put out a letter that “would contain a devastating account of our financial status, sexual harassment charges against a staff member, accusations of wardrobe expenses and excessive staff travel expenses.” Others, he said, “informed me that I needed to withdraw the NRA lawsuit against [Ackerman McQueen] or be smeared.”

Even though LaPierre seems to have won this weekend’s internal fight, he still has harsh critics within the gun rights movement.

The pro-gun site, Ammoland (which has scorched me in the past for my failure to embrace crackpot ideas like “constitutional carry”) ran a piece charging that LaPierre “along with fellow executives and outside contractors, (in particular Advertising agency Ackerman McQueen)” were guilty of “shoveling money out of NRA coffers for decades—to the tune of possibly hundreds of millions of dollars.” Contributor Jeff Knox wrote:

The chicanery, mostly in the form of inflated executive salaries, sweetheart deals to friends and family, and routine payments to vendors for unspecified services, raised objections among loyal NRA staff members, but their questions and concerns were met with hostility and retribution.

The NRA, Knox wrote, faced two choices:

Option 1. A majority of the Board circles the wagons in defense of Wayne LaPierre and his pals and tries to weather the storm. (They’ll fail, and the whole ship will sink.)

or

Option 2. A majority of the Board fires LaPierre and other executives (or accepts their resignations) and nullifies their contracts, suspends all vendor contracts pending thorough review and renegotiation, and purges culpable members of their own body—demonstrating a commitment to safeguarding NRA assets on behalf of the membership. (Plugging the holes and possibly saving the ship.)

The gun rights group appears to have chosen Door Number One.

What’s the case against Oliver North?

Here’s a reminder that there are no good guys in this story.

Back in the 1980s, North rocketed to celebrity despite his conviction on three felony counts for his role in the Iran-Contra scandal: accepting an illegal gratuity, aiding and abetting in the obstruction of a congressional inquiry, and ordering the destruction of documents. His convictions were later vacated by an appeals court because of concerns that testimony at his trial may have been tainted by his immunized congressional testimony.

North was able to parlay his notoriety into rock stardom, becoming a direct mail fundraising machine, a failed senate candidate, and a talk radio host. In 1990, he founded a non-profit organization called the Freedom Alliance and eventually forged a partnership with Sean Hannity to raise money for it. Since 2003, Hannity has helped raise more than $10 million for the “Freedom Alliance Scholarship Fund” by holding “Freedom Concerts” and soliciting donations from his radio listeners. He became NRA president in September 2018.

In announcing that he would not seek re-election as NRA president (North was told he would not be renominated), he said that he had created a committee to investigate financial improprieties in the organization. But North’s attempt to oust LaPierre came after the NRA had filed the lawsuit against Ackerman, which seems to have triggered the apocalypse.

Because it turns out that North himself is deeply entangled with the firm and its high profile television venture.

Where does NRATV fit into all this?

Ackerman McQueen runs NRATV, which is both wildly expensive and controversial even in pro-gun circles. Rather than focusing solely on Second Amendment issues, NRATV has become a combatant in the culture wars, taking on everything from immigration to health care, to racially charged issues, and attacks on the media.

I wrote about this in the New York Times back in 2017:

This is what many of the N.R.A.’s critics have been slow to grasp: The N.R.A. has successfully taken the issue of rational gun regulation out of the policy realm and made it a central feature of the culture wars . . .

The N.R.A. has pursued that strategy relentlessly and with great effect. It was hardly a coincidence that it decided to wade into the controversy over N.F.L. players’ kneeling during the playing of the national anthem . . .

In a recent video starring Dana Loesch, a popular radio talk show host, the N.R.A. checked all the boxes of the culture wars. Featuring apocalyptic images of protests and violence, the spot targeted educational indoctrination in the schools, Hollywood leftism and liberal news media bias. “The only way we stop this, the only way we save our country and our freedom, is to fight this violence of lies with the clenched fist of truth,” Ms. Loesch declares.

The New Yorker reports that Loesch is not an employee of the NRA, but rather draws a salary from Ackerman, where it said, “Loesch earned close to a million dollars, according to a source who has seen her contract.”

And then there is North.

As NRA president, he receives no salary, but the New Yorker reports that he is paid generously by Ackerman to host “Oliver North’s American Heroes” on NRATV. The Daily Beast has more:

The NRA initially agreed to reimburse the ad firm for costs related to Mr. North’s TV contract, but when the organization later sought contract details, Ackerman McQueen balked and Mr. North for months wouldn’t provide documents without the ad firm’s approval, the NRA alleged.

North didn’t deliver as many episodes as the nonprofit expected, according to the suit, and hasn’t demonstrated that he was able to bring in the hoped-for sponsorship cash. “[T]he NRA has no evidence that any substantial sponsorships exist,” the complaint reads. The implications, the suit continues, are “troubling.”

So, which side will conservative media take on all of this?

What an excellent question and I’m so glad I asked myself that.

This is fight that pits right-wing heart-throbs against one another, so there is no easy answer. The safest line will be anti-anti-NRA, focusing most of the attacks on the group’s critics rather than offering any sort of substantive defense. Since the “anti-anti” mode has been perfected in the Age of Trump, this will be the easiest default position. Expect a lot of outrage about the media’s role in all of this.

But if push comes to shove who will they back in the cage match between Wayne LaPierre and Oliver North?

You know the answer: Whichever side Trump picks.

Charles Sykes

Charlie Sykes is a founder and editor-at-large of The Bulwark and the author of How the Right Lost Its Mind. He is also the host of The Bulwark Podcast and an MSNBC contributor.