By Polly Mosendz, Neil Weinberg and David Voreacos / Bloomberg News
NEW YORK — As the National Rifle Association’s chief lobbyist, Chris Cox pumped more money into the unlikely election of Donald Trump than anyone else. Now, Cox won’t be around to oversee its effort to re-elect him.
Until his resignation was made public on Wednesday, Cox had spent 17 years as the executive director of the NRA’s Institute for Legislative Action. He headed its political action committee and was the NRA’s power broker and liaison with Congress, the White House and federal agencies, and he oversaw the rewarding of reliable conservative politicians with “A” ratings for fortifying the Second Amendment. The Tennessee-bred lobbyist also ran NRA Country, the group’s marketing link to the music industry. Cox’s many roles gave him extraordinary influence on U.S. firearms regulation and Republican politics writ large.
Cox was placed on administrative leave on June 20, along with his deputy, after being accused of helping former NRA President Oliver North plot to overthrow Wayne LaPierre, the NRA’s longtime leader and public face. The group is also in a messy public divorce with its longtime advertising agency, Ackerman McQueen Inc., which produced NRATV and helped transform the NRA into a lobbying powerhouse and cultural force.
All told, the NRA is entering the 2020 race with Trump lagging in polls and without the marketing or lobbying power that made it such an effective force for Trump in 2016. It’s not clear who inside the NRA could take Cox’s place, and recruiting an outsider could be especially difficult because of the financial turmoil and political bloodletting roiling the group, some insiders say.
With Cox running the NRA’s political activities, the group rolled to legislative and electoral successes: the repeal of an assault weapons ban; the passage of a law barring charges against gun-makers and dealers who sell firearms used in crimes; and the blocking of expanded background checks for gun buyers championed by a Democratic Congress and the Obama administration.
His lobbying was also effective at the local level. Between December 2012 and March 2018, most of the 600 new gun laws passed at the state level were backed by the NRA, according to the Pew Charitable Trusts.
Cox was the NRA operative behind Trump’s path to the White House, spending a record $30.3 million from the NRA’s political action committee to support him. When Trump spoke at NRA events, he was introduced by Cox rather than LaPierre. Cox conferred with Trump after the Parkland, Fla., school shooting set off renewed calls for gun safety legislation, which the president briefly advocated in the wake of the attack. After Trump tweeted that he had a “great” meeting with the group, Cox announced that the president had dropped his support for such legislation.
But those successes have been drowned out in recent weeks by the NRA’s internal battles. The group filed an explosive lawsuit last week saying that Cox had betrayed LaPierre by joining North in a coup attempt. That followed accusations against LaPierre of lavish spending.
The NRA has said that LaPierre’s spending was proper. Representatives for the NRA, LaPierre and Cox didn’t have immediate comments.
Losing Cox, North and Ackerman McQueen will severely test LaPierre’s leadership. Even if the NRA rushed to set up the logistics for a successful 2020 race, the ongoing drama could harm it even further financially, said Richard Feldman, a former NRA marketing executive. “Some people are looking for an excuse not to contribute. They’ve got it,” he said.
Another former NRA consultant who spoke on the condition of anonymity said, “There’s a moment happening at NRA leadership that is disconnected from what drives NRA-centric voters.”
LaPierre drew criticism after revelations that he received $270,000 of clothes from Ackerman McQueen, the firm that produced NRATV and spent several decades creating much of the modern-day NRA brand, as well as $240,000 in travel expenses reimbursed by the gun group.
In April, the NRA sued Ackerman McQueen, claiming it didn’t provide details about an employment contract that the firm extended to North after he left Fox News to take the unpaid, ceremonial post atop the gun association. The leadership struggle came to a head on April 24, when North threatened to reveal unflattering details about LaPierre’s spending unless he resigned and supported North’s continued tenure, according to the NRA. Instead, LaPierre pushed back, and North was shoved out.
The NRA claims that Ackerman McQueen and Cox joined North in the failed coup attempt. Ackerman McQueen has countersued, and the fallout has doomed NRATV, which was produced by the firm. Late Tuesday, the NRA notified Ackerman McQueen that it was immediately terminating its contract with the firm.
The NRA won a legal victory in Virginia state court on Wednesday when a judge denied a bid by Ackerman McQueen to force the gun association to post a $3 million letter of credit. The agency sought that money to cover $1.6 million in bills it submitted to the NRA that have gone unpaid. It said it would have to furlough or lay off as many as 60 employees within a week if it couldn’t recover the money owed.
Of the three NRA leaders whose photos were prominently displayed at the group’s annual meeting in April, only LaPierre remains.
After news of Cox’s suspension became public, some gun rights advocates expressed their anguish over the NRA’s civil war. Ammoland, a news website for gun enthusiasts, published several articles calling for LaPierre to resign. Hickok45, a father-son YouTube channel about shooting sports with 4 million followers, announced it was cutting its NRA ties altogether.
Cox’s suspension was “the last straw” for their partnership, the duo said in a video. “We need a strong NRA, we want a strong NRA, but it’s just gotten so controversial,” they said.
More than 2,000 people commented, with many expressing their own frustrations with the group. “Wayne simply has to go,” wrote the MrGunsNGears Channel, which has 340,000 subscribers. Many expressed support for Gun Owners of America, a group that’s even more conservative than the NRA. The group supports repeal of the National Firearms Act, one of the few federal laws governing gun ownership.
Given Cox’s influence and the number of favors he has curried with Republican politicians, he could open his own lobbying shop, the former NRA consultant said. “Those voters are going to be out there,” the consultant said. “They’re highly motivated. I’ve seen them in election after election come out. They’re going to coalesce very quickly, whether it’s around the NRA or not.”
Some members who have criticized the NRA say they might be able to continue their support if someone else were at the helm. “I think there comes a point when the board says, ‘To protect the NRA we have to get rid of Wayne,’” Feldman said. “I don’t know who they’d bring in, but it’d be someone who pays for his own $200,000 in suits.”