As Donald Trump’s presidency lurched toward crisis this week, Chris Cox, head of the National Rifle Association’s lobbying arm, attended the annual Congressional Shoot-Out at the Prince George’s County Trap and Skeet Club in Glenn Dale, Maryland.
Standing near the gun range, wearing a green short-sleeve shirt and sunglasses, he filmed a friendly interview with the NRA’s own network, answering a question about anger at Republican lawmakers’ town hall meetings.
“You’ve seen a national media that is not interested in reporting civil dialogue, civil disagreement,” Cox said. “They are interested in trying to undermine this president, certainly trying to undermine the National Rifle Association.”
Cox did not mention Trump’s controversial firing of James Comey, the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation; reports that Trump shared highly classified information with top Russian officials; or news that was then breaking that Comey took notes after a meeting in which Trump allegedly pressed him to stop investigating former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn’s ties to Russia and Turkey — except to attack organizations reporting those stories.
The NRA spent $30 million in support of Trump’s presidential campaign. After his election, the gun group declared itself Trump’s “most powerful ally” and leader of the Trump “counter-resistance.” The group has since combined its calls for looser gun laws with more generalized denouncements of judges, journalists and cultural enemies of Trump’s agenda. Despite a news cycle that brings a new Trump-related controversy nearly every day, the NRA has shown no signs of backing away from its man in the White House.
In the NRA’s telling, the daily revelations and sense of deepening scandal surrounding the Trump administration is media myth. “Fake news,” as the president himself has said. All is well.
Wayne LaPierre, the gun group’s top official, set the tone in February at the Conservative Political Action Conference. LaPierre portrayed Trump’s opponents as “a gathering of forces that are willing to use violence against us.” He argued that the media “dumps gasoline on simple political disagreement to turn it into cultural IEDs,” then steps back to “catch it on video, replay it nonstop for ratings and outrage.”
“We got your back, @POTUS!” the group tweeted on April 30.
Dana Loesch, a conservative pundit turned NRA spokeswoman, has repeatedly offered the same take. On Friday, she appeared in an interview on NRA TV’s YouTube channel discussing the coverage of Comey’s memo, calling it “journalistic malpractice.”
The reporters involved “don’t understand how to practice journalism. They don’t understand how to gather facts,” she alleged, going on to say that if the New York Times is wrong (that is, if Comey’s memo does not exist), it would be “more serious” than if President Trump committed an impeachable offense.
She struck a similar tone last Friday. “The media and Democrats are trying to construct a narrative on which to lay the grounds of impeachment,” she said, in an interview on NRA TV.
She described raucous town hall events where Republican lawmakers face pushback as part of a Democratic plan to “establish a narrative that [says] ‘look, the base is upset with Trump.’”
Trump drew mockery when he said, during a commencement address to Coast Guard Academy graduates on Wednesday, that no politician in history “has been treated worse or more unfairly” by the media, but Loesch backed him up. She said on Fox News that Trump was “on to something” in his digression. Negative news stories “seem designed to distract the president from his winning message,” she said.
The NRA’s attacks buttress Trump’s efforts to discredit prominent media organizations. In a February video, the NRA responded directly to a New York Times TV commercial.
“America has stopped looking to the New York Times for the truth, now more than ever,” text in the 75-second video read. “The times are burning, and the media elite have been caught holding the match.”
The NRA seems to have concluded that Trump’s polarizing presidency has intensified a cultural fight that the organization can exploit by identifying itself broadly with Trump’s backers.
The group’s messaging may reflect some combination of opportunism and ideology.
“The cynic would say it’s tied to fundraising and the proponent would say it’s tied to promotion of ideas they believe in,” Representative Mark Sanford, a South Carolina Republican and gun rights advocate, told The Trace. “Pick your flavor.”
The swirl of scandal around the White House has stalled the Republican agenda, and with it, the NRA’s legislative goals.
“The administration and investigations and all that stuff [has] sucked all the oxygen out of the room here in the short term as it relates to gun issues,” Sanford said.
In an ad debuting the group's new rallying cry, Wayne LaPierre accuses the president's critics of starting a war.
The group’s top priority is a bill requiring every state to honor concealed-carry rights granted by other states, but that measure is on hold until after health care and tax reform efforts conclude, according to Senator John Cornyn, a Republican from Texas and the concealed-carry bill’s lead sponsor.
NRA leaders have so far expressed little impatience, though Cox’s remarks this week included a warning that the group will have only “a short-term window” if backers “sit back and don’t engage further.”
Cox said NRA members must stay energized in the face of motivated opposition to Trump. He urged members to back concealed-carry reciprocity legislation and various bills he described as supporting hunting rights, and to “continue to support this organization.”
“You’re seeing energy and a fundraising operation on the other side what we can’t sit back and be apathetic about,” Cox said. “We have to bring the same moral purpose and the same intensity to the all these legislative fights that we brought to the election.”