WASHINGTON — Wayne LaPierre, the head of the National Rifle Association, increasingly looks like the last man standing at the powerful gun lobbying group.
LaPierre orchestrated the departures of Oliver North, the former NRA president who raised the alarm about questionable accounting under LaPierre’s watch, and Chris Cox, the former head of the gun group’s powerful political and lobbying groups. Mid-level employees who were not aligned with LaPierre have left the group or been shown the door. Late last week, Jennifer Baker, the longtime top communications aide for the NRA’s lobbying arm, lost her job and was escorted from the NRA’s headquarters in northern Virginia.
In her wake, LaPierre is now putting nearly all of the NRA’s communications operations under his watch. According to a previously unreported email obtained by Rolling Stone, LaPierre announced to the entire staff last Tuesday that, effectively immediately, he was restructuring the NRA’s comms into a single department, NRA Public Affairs, that reported to him.
“This division will serve all of the NRA’s needs for public affairs, social media, and crisis communications,” LaPierre wrote. “This department will coordinate official spokesperson duties for all of the NRA, including NRA-ILA and General Operations. NRA Public Affairs will report directly to the Executive Vice President through the Managing Director of Public Affairs, Andrew Arulanandam.” (The full email can be read at the bottom of this story.)
The moves by LaPierre illustrate the NRA leader’s ongoing campaign to gain uncontested control over the group and reshape it in his image. He has ousted rivals inside NRA headquarters, silenced his critics on the NRA board, and wrested control of once-autonomous teams within the organization. LaPierre’s supporters say he’s doing what’s needed to guide the NRA through one of the most tumultuous chapters in its history. To critics, he’s staged a hostile takeover and put the group’s future at risk.
A former NRA official gives a two-word response when asked why LaPierre would make this sweeping change to how the gun group functions: “Consolidate. Insulate.”
An NRA spokesman did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
The NRA’s social-media accounts and email lists together reach millions, if not tens of millions, of people. In years past, the group’s various Facebook pages were run by different teams of staffers and consultants spread throughout the NRA’s headquarters in Fairfax, Virginia. Now, as part of his retrenchment at the head of the NRA, LaPierre is bringing the full might of the NRA’s messaging and voice more explicitly under his watch.
The past four months have been some of the ugliest in the NRA’s nearly 150-year history. The signs of trouble burst into view in April when the NRA sued its longtime PR firm, Ackerman McQueen. Ack Mac, as it’s referred to by NRA employees, played a central role in the NRA’s operations: The firm shaped LaPierre’s image into one of a tough, gun-protecting leader; created memorable marketing campaigns like Charlton Heston’s famous line about prying his gun “from my cold, dead hands”; and ran the NRA’s massive annual convention.
Former NRA employees say Ack Mac was so enmeshed with the NRA that it became difficult to tell where the gun group ended and Ack Mac began. For its services, the NRA paid Ack Mac increasingly larger sums of money each year, peaking at an eye-popping $40 million in 2016, according to the gun group’s tax filings. But some of Ack Mac’s newer project such as NRA TV and a gun insurance service called Carry Guard turned out to be flops, and according to news reports, the once-harmonious relationship between the NRA and Ack Mac began to fray.
To the outside world, however, it wasn’t obvious something was amiss between the NRA and its preferred PR shop until mid-April. In a lawsuit filed in Virginia state court, the NRA accused Ack Mac of failing to hiding its accounting records for its services for the gun group and “flagrantly disregarding its contractual obligations.” (Ackerman called the allegations “frivolous, inaccurate, and intended to cause harm to the reputation of our company.”)
The dispute got nastier from there. Oliver North, the disgraced former military officer at the center of the Iran-Contra scandal and an NRA board member, had assumed the unpaid, ceremonial post of NRA president. North, however, used his position to agitate for the removal of Wayne LaPierre. North argued that LaPierre had allowed gross financial mismanagement to occur under his watch and had spent large sums of NRA money on custom clothing and other perks.
North’s coup attempt came on the eve of the NRA’s national convention — and it failed miserably. Instead, LaPierre engineered North’s resignation as president. Denied the chance to speak at the NRA convention, North drafted a statement and an ally of his read it to the audience. “There is a clear crisis that needs to be dealt with immediately,” read the statement.
The NRA says it is burning through millions of dollars a month on legal fees in its lawsuit against Ack Mac and in another suit against New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo after Cuomo blocked the use of Carry Guard, an insurance product for gun owners offered by the NRA that critics have called “murder insurance.” The NRA said in one filing in the New York suit that Cuomo’s crackdown on the group had left it in serious financial trouble and that it may soon be “unable to exist.” More recently, the New York attorney general opened an investigation into whether the NRA violated its tax-exempt status.
In the midst of all of this, LaPierre has systematically purged the NRA of employees and board members who weren’t full-throated allies of his. He acrimoniously pushed out Chris Cox, the head of the NRA’s political action committee and its lobbying operation; Cox was seen by many as the next in line to run the NRA. Oliver North’s replacement as president was a close associate of LaPierre’s named Carolyn Meadows, and Meadows has marginalized NRA board of members who were seen as close to Cox or insufficiently loyal to LaPierre.
In response to the turmoil, donors have threatened to withhold money and high-profile supporters have demanded LaPierre step down. “There is a cabal of cronyism operating within the NRA and that exists within the Board of Directors,” former congressman and Tea Party hero Allen West wrote on his blog in May. “It must cease, and I do not care if I draw their angst.”
Judging by his recent actions, LaPierre doesn’t appear to be going anywhere soon.
READ LAPIERRE’S JULY 16 EMAIL TO ALL NRA STAFF:
From: “LaPierre, Wayne”
Date: July 16, 2019 at 4:58:53 PM EDT
To: #All NRA Employees
Subject: Restructuring – NRA Public Affairs
M E M O R A N D U M
TO: All NRA Employees
FROM: Wayne LaPierre
Executive Vice President
DATE: July 16, 2019
SUBJECT: Restructuring – NRA Public Affairs
NRA Public Affairs serves an important function as the voice of the NRA to our members, the news media, and key stakeholders. As an organization, it is critical that our public outreach is highly coordinated, our messaging is consistent, and our external communications are oriented toward our mission: defense of the Second Amendment.
In support of these goals, I am pleased to announce a restructuring of the NRA Public Affairs Department. Effective immediately, I am consolidating all our media and communications functions under one department, NRA Public Affairs. This division will serve all of the NRA’s needs for public affairs, social media, and crisis communications. This department will coordinate official spokesperson duties for all of the NRA, including NRA-ILA and General Operations.
NRA Public Affairs will report directly to the Executive Vice President through the Managing Director of Public Affairs, Andrew Arulanandam. As you may know, Andrew has more than 18 years’ experience working in all phases of communications for the NRA and NRA-ILA. He has a strong background in media relations and executive communications and will continue to serve the NRA well.
These changes will not only enhance our public advocacy, eliminate duplication of efforts, but also help us realize cost savings on behalf of our members.