The NRA’s Tax Exempt Status – and Thus Its Existence – Is in Trouble

NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre in April. Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images

While the story was overshadowed by President Trump’s historically bad week, his allies in the NRA received some pretty terrible news from the Senate on Friday. Democratic Senator Ron Wyden revealed an 18-month investigation by the Senate Finance Committee, which determined that the National Rifle Association served as a “foreign asset” for Russia in the run-up to the 2016 election.

It’s been public knowledge that the gun-rights advocacy group had connections with two Russian assets, former Moscow official Alexander Torshin and Maria Butina — who is currently serving a sentence for conspiracy to act as a foreign agent for her efforts to infiltrate the NRA and the National Prayer Breakfast in order to influence conservative policy. But the Senate investigation displays a damning level of executive-suite involvement, including former NRA vice-president Pete Brownell’s 2015 trip to Russia, “primarily or solely for the purpose of advancing personal business interests, rather than advancing the NRA’s tax-exempt purpose.”

Not only was Brownell — who later became the organization’s president — spending NRA funds for personal business, an email from Maria Butina to two senior NRA staffers reveals that he was in Russia because “many powerful figures in the Kremlin are counting on Torshin to prove his American connections.” The Senate investigation also found evidence of the NRA attempting to obscure payments for the trip.

Though he’s currently embroiled in his own monumental scandal of foreign influence, on some level, Trump must be aware of the NRA’s no-good, very-bad-day: He helped make it worse, after all. On Friday, the New York Times reported that NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre met with Trump at the White House, asking the president if he could “stop the games” on gun control. According to the Times, the pair “discussed prospective gun legislation and whether the N.R.A. could provide support for the president as he faces impeachment and a more difficult re-election campaign,” which sounds similar to the quid-pro-quo exchange in Ukraine that got him into the mess of an impeachment inquiry.

What separates this Senate investigation from other concerns the NRA is facing — allegations of lavish executive spending as the organization deals with substantial cash-flow problems; multiple crises in leadership — is that it could affect its status as a non-profit. “This was an official trip undertaken so NRA insiders could get rich — a clear violation of the principle that tax-exempt resources should not be used for personal benefit,” Senator Wyden told CNN.

Already the organization’s non-profit status is in jeopardy in New York, where Attorney General Letitia James is investigating if the NRA mis-used funds meant for charity purposes. And according to Marc Owens, the former head of the Internal Revenue Service division overseeing tax-exempt enterprises, the NRA is unlikely to exist without its non-profit status. “There is a tremendous range of what appears to be the misuse of assets for the benefit of certain vendors and people in control.” Owens told the New Yorker in April, months prior to the Senate investigation proving such mismanagement of funds.

NRA’s Tax Exempt Status – Thus Its Existence – Is in Trouble