Shortly after the 2016 election, it was revealed that the National Rifle Association spent an unprecedented $30 million to help elect Donald Trump, triple what they spent to back Mitt Romney during the 2012 election. Further reports revealed that the NRA had essentially been infiltrated by Russian operatives, including Maria Butina, the Russian woman now sitting in a U.S. federal prison and reportedly cooperating with special counsel Robert Mueller. Butina and the Russians created an NRA-like organization called Right to Bear Arms and used it to woo Republicans and American conservatives. And were they ever successful!
Butina’s boss, Alexander Torshin, is a powerful Russian banker who is said to have very close ties to Vladimir Putin. Torshin arranged for high-profile conservatives, like then-NRA president David Keene, to be wined and dined in Moscow, along with notoriously nutty former Sheriff David Clarke. The Russians were spoon-feeding these fools and they were eating it up. Outside of boondoggles to Moscow, the Russians may have also been pouring money into the NRA in order to influence American conservatives, and specifically the Donald Trump campaign. During the heat of the 2016 campaign, Donald Trump Jr. met with Torshin at a private dinner hosted by, who else? The NRA.
Special counsel Robert Mueller is reportedly investigating the financial ties between the NRA and the Russians. It is illegal to use foreign money in American political campaigns.
With that in mind, let’s pivot to a new and troubling joint report from Mother Jones and The Trace, which lays out strong evidence that the Trump campaign and the NRA illegally coordinated $30 million in political spending to boost Trump in 2016.
The NRA used a firm called Red Eagle Media to place ad buys in key states⏤ads that Mother Jones describes as “anti-Hillary” and “pro-Trump.” Meanwhile, the Trump campaign placed a nearly identical ad buy through a firm called American Media & Advocacy Group (AMAG). And here’s the kicker:
The two purchases may have looked coincidental; Red Eagle and AMAG appear at first glance to be separate firms. But each is closely connected to a major conservative media-consulting firm called National Media Research, Planning and Placement. In fact, the three outfits are so intertwined that both the NRA’s and the Trump campaign’s ad buys were authorized by the same person: National Media’s chief financial officer, Jon Ferrell.
“This is very strong evidence, if not proof, of illegal coordination,” said Larry Noble, a former general counsel for the Federal Election Commission. “This is the heat of the general election, and the same person is acting as an agent for the NRA and the Trump campaign.”
Rinse and repeat throughout the campaign. The two organizations were using the same exact people to place ad buys in the same markets, the same budgets, the same programming. The end goal was to flood the market and the target demographic (older white people) with non-stop anti-Hillary, pro-Trump messaging. The two organizations were violating campaign finance laws that forbid this type of coordination. The Trace spells it out:
The NRA was free to spend as much money as it wanted on behalf of Trump in 2016. But under federal election law, if an independent group and a campaign share election-related information, then the group’s expenditures no longer qualify as independent and are instead treated as in-kind donations, subject to a $5,000 cap.
When an outside group and a candidate use the same vendor, staffers working for either client are prevented by law from sharing information with each other. Typically, such vendors make staffers sign a company “firewall” policy, which functions as a pledge not to coordinate and an acknowledgment that there are civil and criminal penalties for doing so. Under the law, National Media staffers working for Trump should have been separated from those working for the NRA. Documents suggest, instead, a synchronized effort.
Former FEC chair Ann Ravel said the campaign violations are “blatant.”
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen a situation where illegal coordination seems more obvious,” said Ann Ravel, a former chair of the Federal Election Commission, who reviewed the records. “It is so blatant that it doesn’t even seem sloppy. Everyone involved probably just thinks there aren’t going to be any consequences.”
The Trace reports that its researchers found evidence that the exact same people placed ad buys for both the Trump campaign and the NRA throughout the country. And it isn’t just the Trump campaign that may have illegally coordinated with the NRA.
Prior reporting has identified consulting firms as conduits for potentially illegal coordination between campaigns and outside groups. In 2013, a Center for Public Integrity and NBC News investigation turned up evidence that an AMAG media buyer purchased airtime both for a Texas congressional candidate and for an outside group that was supporting him. In July, The Trace found that the NRA had been using an apparent shell firm called Starboard Strategic Inc. to produce ads for Senate candidates who employed a GOP consulting outfit called OnMessage Inc. The two entities, according to subsequent complaints filed to the FEC, are “functionally indistinguishable.” Starboard and OnMessage are located in the same Alexandria buildings as National Media, according to public records.
In fact, the NRA was still potentially illegally coordinating with Republican candidates during the 2018 midterms, most notably with now-Senator-elect Josh Hawley of Missouri, who is under investigation in a separate matter for illegally using public resources to run for the U.S. Senate while he was Missouri’s attorney general. From McClatchy in the final weeks of the midterm election:
Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley’s Senate campaign and the National Rifle Association’s PAC have engaged in an elaborate scheme to conceal illegal coordination, a complaint filed with the Federal Election Commission alleges.
Hawley’s campaign is employing the same people to produce ads as the NRA Political Victory Fund. Last month, one person placed ads on behalf of the Missouri Republican’s campaign and the PAC with the same television station on the same day, according to the complaint.
The overlap in personnel is strong evidence of coordination between the PAC and the campaign, said Brendan Fischer, director of the federal reform program at the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center in Washington.
Will there be any consequences? The Federal Election Commission is rather toothless, by design. In 2015, then-FEC chair Ravel told the New York Times that the commissioners were helplessly deadlocked along party lines and the agency had virtually no power to enforce the laws.
“The likelihood of the laws being enforced is slim,” Ann M. Ravel, the chairwoman, said in an interview. “I never want to give up, but I’m not under any illusions. People think the F.E.C. is dysfunctional. It’s worse than dysfunctional.”
Her unusually frank assessment reflects a worsening stalemate among the agency’s six commissioners. They are perpetually locked in 3-to-3 ties along party lines on key votes because of a fundamental disagreement over the mandate of the commission, which was created 40 years ago in response to the political corruption of Watergate.
How convenient for the politicians and campaigns they are supposed to be policing, no?
In 2013, the Obama campaign and the DNC jointly paid a $375,000 fine for filing errors that occurred during the 2008 campaign, which saw a record number of grassroots donors. One can only imagine the repercussions for Obama and the DNC if it had turned out they’d been illegally coordinating ad buys to the tune of $30 million with an outside organization, particularly one that may have been funded by a foreign enemy looking to disrupt American democracy and destabilize America’s footing as the leader of the free world.