Wayne LaPierre, the chief executive of the National Rifle Association, has confronted threats from all sides this year.
He faced a revolt from the N.R.A.’s
- top lobbyist,
- its president,
- its longtime advertising firm and
- several board members and
that quickly became public. New documents reviewed by The New York Times show that the effort against him was even wider in scope, drawing in three outside law firms working for the N.R.A. and at least one in-house attorney. A wave of embarrassing leaks showed that Mr. LaPierre billed a contractor hundreds of thousands of dollars for bespoke suits and foreign travel, as well as some of his wife’s makeup costs.
Then this month, two mass shootings galvanized the gun control movement and prompted President Trump to float the possibility of expanded background checks, which is anathema to the gun lobby.
But Mr. LaPierre, who has run the N.R.A. since 1991, has so far survived all of the internal challenges. And he has continued to successfully advance his group’s uncompromising agenda. This week he appeared to personally persuade Mr. Trump to resist significant measures sought by Democrats and gun control advocates.
Now Mr. LaPierre is continuing to purge opponents. On Thursday, the N.R.A. dismissed its longtime outside counsel, Charles J. Cooper, the chairman of the Washington law firm Cooper & Kirk, people with knowledge of the decision said. A second outside counsel and a top in-house counsel resigned. The departures come after an internal inquiry showed that the lawyers were involved in an effort to undermine Mr. LaPierre.
The N.R.A. is also considering halting payments to its former second in command, Christopher Cox, who left in June but is still on the payroll, said the people, who insisted on anonymity to discuss internal matters.
The N.R.A.’s apparent success in fending off stricter gun regulations represents an important show of strength for Mr. LaPierre after months of damaging turmoil. And it shows that even in a diminished state, the group wields vast influence over the Republican Party, and particularly President Trump, after spending more than $30 million to help get him elected.
N.R.A. officials have said the rebellion was sparked by Mr. LaPierre’s decision to pursue an internal audit of contractors. The infighting became public in April, when Oliver North departed as the group’s president after seeking his own financial review and being accused by Mr. LaPierre of trying to extort him. Mr. Trump urged the group to “stop the internal fighting, & get back to GREATNESS — FAST!”
Previous reporting by The Times and others has chronicled the internal tumult around Mr. North’s departure. But the new documents show a deeper level of coordination than was previously known in the effort against Mr. LaPierre, with extensive discussions between Mr. North’s allies and the N.R.A.’s own outside counsels. Mr. Cooper and other lawyers exchanged emails urging leaks and countermeasures that would undermine Mr. LaPierre’s strategy. At one point in April Mr. Cooper wrote another lawyer in frustration, saying, “No one on our side will leak.”
The documents also show how Mr. LaPierre scrambled to shore up his standing, reaching out to board members for support. And handwritten notes taken by an aide to Mr. LaPierre, scrawled on a yellow legal pad, detailed what the N.R.A. says were threats made by Mr. North to force Mr. LaPierre to resign. There would be revelations about “sexual offenses” by one of Mr. LaPierre’s colleagues, about spending on “Wayne/clothing” and luxury travel. Mr. North sought the “immediate resignation of Wayne,” the notes said, adding, “Window is short.”
Mr. Cooper, in a statement on Thursday, said, “Throughout the over three decades in which I have represented the N.R.A., I have adhered to the highest standards of professionalism.” He added that he owed an “ethical duty of loyalty to the N.R.A. itself” and not to “any individual officers or directors.”
Michael Volkov, an outside counsel who resigned Thursday, declined to comment, as did Brendan Sullivan, a lawyer for Mr. North.
In legal filings, Mr. North’s lawyers have said that suggestions he took part in a coup attempt against Mr. LaPierre are “fictitious,” and that he had legitimate concerns about “potential financial misconduct” and was thwarted by Mr. LaPierre’s “total dictatorial control.”
Mr. LaPierre said in a statement that he was disturbed “that the N.R.A.’s supposed ‘friends’” engaged in what he called a “scheme to harm our Association,” and said Mr. North “abused the trust” of the gun group.
A spokeswoman for Mr. Cox referred to an earlier statement, when he said allegations that he was complicit in a coup attempt against Mr. LaPierre were “offensive and patently false.”
Mr. LaPierre, 69, evolved from a wonky and introverted lobbyist to become the unyielding face of the gun rights movement in America. Married without children, he has made the N.R.A. his life’s work, framing it as a civil rights issue, and has been reluctant to step aside. But the leaks have taken a toll: Even Fox News, a reliable sanctuary, attacked him this week, with a host describing him as “an odious little grifter.”
In the aftermath of the shootings in El Paso and Dayton, Ohio, this month, Mr. LaPierre reverted to a familiar N.R.A. playbook: The group focused on issues like mental health rather than guns themselves. Mr. LaPierre lobbied Mr. Trump behind the scenes, including in a 30-minute phone call Tuesday after which Mr. Trump also referred to the shootings as “a mental problem” and accused Democrats of wanting to “give up the Second Amendment.”
Still, Mr. LaPierre’s influence will continue to be tested. The Republican-controlled Senate remains a reliable ally in fighting off new restrictions. But the gun control movement has begun to catch up, with well-funded backers like Michael R. Bloomberg, and in the 2018 midterm election cycle, gun control groups outspent the N.R.A.
The rebellion inside the organization was ultimately about money and power. And it featured a high-stakes tussle between Mr. LaPierre and Mr. North — an icon of the right who was involved in one of the most notorious political scandals of the 1980s — for control of one of the country’s most influential, and incendiary, lobbying groups.
At the center of the revolt was the group’s advertising firm, Ackerman McQueen, which had advised the organization for decades.
Both Mr. LaPierre and Mr. North had financial ties to Ackerman. Mr. LaPierre was billing the firm for hundreds of thousands of dollars in expenses, while Mr. North had a contract worth millions of dollars to appear on an online documentary series.
New documents show how a dispute over the N.R.A.’s access to Ackerman’s financial records escalated tensions between Mr. LaPierre and Mr. North. Though the gun group’s presidency is ceremonial, Mr. North began requesting documents related to an internal inquiry into Ackerman. In February, Mr. LaPierre essentially told Mr. North to stay in his lane. In a previously undisclosed letter he wrote, “Because you are an employee of Ackerman McQueen, and have a conflict of interest, I request again that you kindly cease and desist from any further involvement.”
Dividing lines took shape as Ackerman and Mr. North aligned with Mr. Cooper and other outside counsels. By early April, Mr. LaPierre was moving to consolidate support. Another prominent outside N.R.A. lawyer, J. Steven Hart, warned Mr. Cooper and others in an email that “Wayne is making calls to board members at a rapid pace,” adding that Mr. North should do the same.
On April 12, the N.R.A. sued Ackerman, saying it had concealed details about its spending. Many insiders were caught off guard. After an Ackerman attorney sent the lawsuit to Mr. Cooper, he responded, “OMG.”
Allies of Ackerman hatched countermoves, including a plan to create a committee to investigate the group’s finances and expose Mr. LaPierre’s billing practices.
The documents reviewed by The Times also show the extent to which a second rivalry was brewing, between Mr. Cooper and William A. Brewer III, a Democrat whom Mr. LaPierre had hired a year earlier. Mr. Brewer ascended quickly and began getting all of the significant legal work, including several congressional and state inquiries.
Mr. North has said that Mr. Brewer’s bills were “draining N.R.A. cash at mind-boggling speed.” But Mr. Cooper is also expensive, charging $1,350 an hour, compared with $1,400 for Mr. Brewer, people with knowledge of the billing said.
Before proposing the special committee, Mr. North called a close aide to Mr. LaPierre, urging her to tell her boss that he needed to resign. If he did not, Mr. North warned that damaging information would be released about Mr. LaPierre’s spending. If he did, Mr. North would help arrange an “excellent retirement” package, according to the aide’s handwritten notes. A second N.R.A. official also overheard the call.
Mr. LaPierre refused to resign, viewing the call as an extortion attempt. Later that day, the aide emailed Mr. North with a blunt response.
“This note confirms that he will not endorse you for another term as N.R.A. president,” she told him.
With the board lining up behind Mr. LaPierre, the effort to remove him quickly stalled. In a text message later that evening, David Lehman, Mr. Cox’s in-house counsel, wrote to Mr. Cooper: “You should call Ollie this evening. Things have turned.”
“Turned how?” Mr. Cooper replied.
“Badly,” Mr. Lehman wrote.
Two days later, on April 26, with the group’s annual convention underway in Indianapolis, Mr. Cox texted Mr. Cooper, all but conceding failure in the effort to weaken Mr. LaPierre. “I fear we are not changing the tides,” he wrote.
The next day, The Times reported that Letitia James, the New York attorney general, had opened an investigation into the N.R.A.’s tax-exempt status.
“This is a debacle,” Mr. Hart, who had just been dismissed by the N.R.A., wrote in an email to Mr. Cooper. “Is Brewer a moron or a Manchurian candidate?”
Mr. Cooper replied by saying of Mr. Brewer: “He is kicking our side’s ass because no one on our side will leak AckMc’s info.”
The unraveling of lawyers, guns and money coincides with the departures of half a dozen board members in recent weeks. But Mr. LaPierre remains center stage, as polarizing as ever.
“Donald Trump and Wayne LaPierre are made for each other,” said Peter Ambler, executive director of Giffords, the gun control group started by former Representative Gabrielle Giffords. He called them “mirror images” engulfed in “allegations of corruption and mismanagement.”
But Todd Rathner, a member of the N.R.A.’s board, said, “Wayne is leading and proving that he has the political juice to get the job done.”
The man in the White House thinks he’s a miracle.
Do you blame God for Donald Trump?
“I am the chosen one,” Trump announced on Wednesday. O.K., he was talking about fighting his trade war with China, not ascending into heaven. It was all a joke, sort of. But we’ve been so far down the megalomania road with this president that it would not be a total surprise to discover he had delusions of divinity.
Maybe at night, when he’s alone with nobody but Fox News to keep him company, Trump envisions a future in which all Americans will appreciate how much he’s suffered for their salvation. He does seem to think of himself as something super-special. And if you listen to him answering questions without the help of a teleprompter, there is a tendency to wonder if he’s speaking in tongues.
Take his interchange with reporters Wednesday. There were, naturally, questions about gun laws — particularly background checks. Trump had wanted to tackle that issue in a big way until he sorta didn’t. Now he’s decided the current system is already “very strong.”
And then he elaborated. Follow along:
“But we are going to be filling in some of the loopholes, as we call them, at the border and will be speaking about it at the border. It would be really nice if the Democrats would indeed fix the loopholes because it would be really nice. But despite that, I want to thank Mexico. They have 26,000 soldiers at our border and they’re really stopping people from coming in. So what happens is with background checks, we’re dealing with Democrats, we’re dealing with Republicans. …”
You will notice that he seems to be mixing up the Mexican border with gun regulation. This may be because he has a godlike ability to see things that no one else can see. In his getting-on-the-helicopter Q&A with the media, he referred twice to the way his great wall has been growing by leaps and bounds. (“The wall is being built — we’re building tremendous numbers of miles of wall right now.”) Mere mortals might wonder where the heck he gets the idea that this is actually happening, but that’s because they lack his miraculous vision.
With that kind of self-image, you could understand why the president feels any criticism reeks of blasphemy. This week he’s been obsessed with the prime minister of Denmark, Mette Frederiksen, who called his idea of buying Greenland “absurd.”
“The prime minister used a terrible word,” our wounded chief executive told reporters. And he vowed there’d be no quick forgiveness for any heads of state who dared send a negative adjective in his direction: “(They) can’t treat the United States of America the way they treated us under President Obama.”
Trump’s obsession with his predecessor is scary. Now he’s at war with auto companies that want to stick close to the 2012 rules on emissions rollbacks. How dare they respect an Obama-era regulation?
And the media thing: Trump sees his story in heroic — if not biblical — proportions, and journalists are always the villains, doing something that needs to be decried. Currently it’s the stories that hospitalized victims of the El Paso mass shooting passed up the opportunity to meet with him when he visited.
“I went to the hospitals — it was totally badly reported,” he complained. The victims and their families, Trump insisted, “love their president and nobody wrote that.” Well, two people who’d been treated and released did come to shake his hand. And some of the stories did focus on the way the president spent part of his mission of mercy bragging to the medical staff about the size of the crowd at his rally. Can’t imagine why.
The nation is still reeling from that tragic weekend of mass shooting. When the cry went up for better gun control, there were lots of stories about Trump’s promise to do something very big when it came to background checks. He is now waffling like a breakfast special. And adopting the National Rifle Association dodge that the only problem is mental health. (“The gun doesn’t pull the trigger, a person does. And we have great mental illness.”)
But about the God complex: Lately Trump has had an obsession with himself as savior of the Holy Land that’s turning downright creepy. “In my opinion, you vote for a Democrat, you’re being very disloyal to Jewish people and you’re being very disloyal to Israel,” he insisted.
Some people wondered if it was a tad offensive to demand that Jews vote Republican or be seen as a traitor to their people.
“It’s only anti-Semitic in your head,” Trump decreed, peering into the minds of his questioners.
Lots of hints here that the president, at least, thinks of himself as someone far beyond mortal men. And then there’s that long, long history of referring to himself in the third person:
“Nobody has been tougher on Russia than Donald Trump.”
“Nobody has more respect for women than Donald Trump.”
“There’s never been a president like President Trump.”
“China has total respect for Donald Trump and for Donald Trump’s very, very large brain.”
Take your pick, people. You can accept the idea that he was sent to us by forces from above, or you can pray that he’ll have to go away in 2020. But remember, he’s always watching.
Ackerman McQueen wants to quit nearly 40-year relationship amid the partners’ legal dispute
Advertising firm Ackerman McQueen Inc. said it was moving to terminate its nearly 40-year relationship with the National Rifle Association, the latest salvo in the dispute between the two longtime partners that has embroiled the NRA in controversy in recent months.
Oklahoma City-based Ackerman McQueen has been the NRA’s ad agency since the 1980s and has been credited with helping to transform the gun-rights group from a grass-roots operation to a powerful national advocacy group. But the two organizations have had a falling out in recent months involving litigation and dueling claims that each has leaked confidential information about their relationship to the media.
The NRA in a lawsuit filed last week accused Ackerman of being behind what it called a failed coup attempt at its recent annual meeting, aimed at ousting NRA Chief Executive Wayne LaPierre. Ackerman countersued, claiming the NRA was looking for pretexts to cancel its contract and seeking as much as $100 million in damages.
In the announcement Wednesday, Ackerman said it had formally provided a notice to terminate its contract with the NRA, claiming the agreement already had been “constructively terminated” by the NRA’s own “inexplicable actions.”
The dispute traces to a drive by the NRA to shore up its internal governance practices. The gun-rights group has said it demanded that all vendors submit detailed records to back up invoices to the NRA, and the only vendor that didn’t comply was Ackerman. The NRA paid the ad firm more than $40 million in 2017, the most recent year publicly available.
Ackerman has said it has complied with all authorized demands for records. It also sent several letters to NRA officials, saying it was unable to comply with demands for records related to certain expenses it incurred on behalf of top NRA officials without additional detail from the NRA itself.
Among the expenses was more than $500,000 the ad firm said it allegedly incurred for clothing and travel expenses for Mr. LaPierre, which included suits from a Beverly Hills, Calif., boutique and travel to locales such as Italy and the Bahamas. The NRA has said the expenses were justified, but the letters leaked out after they played a role in an internal NRA board drama that led to the departure of then-NRA President Oliver North.
Ackerman produces the gun-rights group’s NRATV, a venture that includes live video programming. It isn’t clear what will happen to NRATV once the ad agency no longer works for the NRA.
From trade deals to gun control and immigration to military deployments, the president has a consistent pattern: Talk a big game, then back down.
President Trump’s May 8 announcement that he was withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal should not have come as a surprise. He’d spent years railing against the plan—“the worst deal ever,” he dubbed it—and had promised to rip it up. And yet up to the moment when the president made the final call, there was still some suspense about what he would say.