Donald Trump's team may have violated campaign-finance regulations during the 2016 presidential race by coordinating advertising strategy with the National Rifle Association.
The gun-rights group and the Trump campaign suspiciously both placed ads on a Virginia television station, targeting the same voter demographics, according to an analysis by Mother Jones magazine and The Trace.
The news outlets reported that the NRA contracted with Red Eagle Media less than a month before the election. The company described the 52 spots it purchased on the ABC affiliate WVEC in Norfolk as “anti-Hillary” and “pro-Trump.” The ads, designed to appeal to voters between the ages of 35 and 64, were aired during “Jeopardy!” and “Wheel of Fortune.”
Shortly thereafter, the Trump campaign placed 33 similar ads on the station, using the American Media & Advocacy Group (AMAG) as an intermediary. The spots ran on the same TV shows.
Mother Jones pointed out that Red Eagle and AMAG have links to National Media Research, Planning and Placement. The right-wing media-consulting firm's chief financial officer, Jon Ferrell, authorized both sets of ad buys. Red Eagle and AMAG appear to be basically the same organization.
“This is very strong evidence, if not proof, of illegal coordination,” said Larry Noble, a former lawyer for the Federal Election Commission. “This is in the heat of the general election, and the same person is acting as an agent for the NRA and the Trump campaign.”
Ann Ravel, an ex-chairwoman of the FEC, accused Trump operatives of breaking federal law. “I don't think I've ever seen a situation where illegal coordination seems more obvious,” she declared. “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 NRA contributed $30 million to Trump's White House bid. While that was legal, sharing campaign strategy would be crossing the line. A private group involved in such a cooperative arrangement may not contribute more than $5,000 to a political campaign.
The scheme's perpetrators could be subject to fines, but any civil action requires a unanimous vote of FEC commissioners. That probably will not happen, since the officials are sharply divided politically. The likelihood of a criminal investigation by the Justice Department also seems remote.
Trump has been a guest speaker at the NRA's past four annual meetings. In May, Trump told the group: “You have an administration fighting to protect your Second Amendment and we will protect your Second Amendment. Your Second Amendment rights are under siege, but they will never ever be under siege as long as I am your president.”
Trump later backed down somewhat, in response to a spate of shooting massacres. He announced that he would support more background checks of gun purchasers, a ban on mentally-ill people owning firearms, and raising the age which anyone may have a gun.
Trump claimed that his administration was “working to improve early warning systems” to identify potential mass shooters, but no such policy initiative has emerged from the White House. The president did sign a bill allocating $2 million for school-safety efforts, which the NRA backed. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has cleared the way for school districts to use federal funds to buy guns for teachers.
The president, as well as his sons Don Jr. and Eric, are members of the NRA. “We love the Second Amendment, folks,” Trump exclaimed after winning the Nevada caucuses in 2016. “Nobody loves it more than us, so just remember that.”
He has not always felt that way. Newsweek recalled that in his book “The America We Deserve,” published in 2000, Trump slammed Republicans who “walk the NRA line” and “refuse even limited restrictions” on firearms.
“I support the ban on assault weapons, and I also support a slightly longer waiting period to purchase a gun,” the real-estate tycoon wrote in the book. He flip-flopped in April 2015, stating at a meeting of the gun-rights group: “I love the NRA. I love the Second Amendment. … I promise you one thing, if I run for president and if I win, the Second Amendment will be totally protected, that I can tell you.”
Two months later, Trump announced his presidential candidacy. At campaign rallies, he advocated repeal of gun restrictions, and agreed with the NRA that allowing more civilians to carry concealed weapons could prevent mass shootings.
The candidate dismissed gun-free zones as a “catastrophe” and a “feeding frenzy for sick people.” He said “gun and magazine bans are a total failure,” and called concealed carry permits “common sense.”
Trump frequently pivots during gun-control discussions to focus on the need for more mental-health services. “This isn't a gun problem. This is a mental problem,” he once said. “It's not a question of the laws; it's really the people.”