Campaign finance documentation reviewed by Mother Jones paint a nearly undeniable picture of coordination between the National Rifle Association and the Trump campaign in the final weeks of the 2016 presidential election — a clear violation of federal law.
The National Rifle Association spent $30 million to help elect Donald Trump—more than any other independent conservative group. Most of that sum went toward television advertising, but a political message loses its power if it fails to reach the right audience at the right time. For the complex and consequential task of placing ads in key markets across the nation in 2016, the NRA turned to a media strategy firm called Red Eagle Media.
One element of Red Eagle’s work for the NRA involved purchasing a slate of 52 ad slots on WVEC, the ABC affiliate in Norfolk, Virginia, in late October 2016. The ads targeted adults aged 35 to 64 and aired on local news programs and syndicated shows like Jeopardy! and Wheel of Fortune. In paperwork filed with the Federal Communications Commission, Red Eagle described them as “anti-Hillary” and “pro-Trump.”
The Trump campaign pursued a strikingly similar advertising strategy. Shortly after the Red Eagle purchase, as Election Day loomed, it bought 33 ads on the same station, set to air during the same week. The ads, which the campaign purchased through a firm called American Media & Advocacy Group (AMAG), were aimed at precisely the same demographic as the NRA spots, and often ran during the same shows, bombarding Norfolk viewers with complementary messages.
But what might appear coincidental becomes potentially illegal when considering that Red Eagle and AMAG both are closely connected to the major conservative media-consulting firm National Media Research, Planning and Placement, Mother Jones reported.
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.”
Reporting by The Trace, which has teamed up with Mother Jones to investigate the NRA’s political activity, shows that the NRA and the Trump campaign employed the same operation—at times, the exact same people—to craft and execute their advertising strategies for the 2016 presidential election. The investigation, which involved a review of more than 1,000 pages of Federal Communications Commission and Federal Election Commission documents, found multiple instances in which National Media, through its affiliates Red Eagle and AMAG, executed ad buys for Trump and the NRA that seemed coordinated to enhance each other.
Former Federal Election Commission Chair Ann Ravel told Mother Jones she had never before encountered such obviously illegal coordination: “It is so blatant that it doesn’t even seem sloppy. Everyone involved probably just thinks there aren’t going to be any consequences.”
Regardless, it is highly unlikely that any of the players will be held to account.
The FEC has the authority to launch investigations and seek civil penalties, but it’s unlikely that the NRA or the Trump campaign will face any official action. The FEC’s four commissioners—it is supposed to have six—have been deadlocked for years in an ideological split, making the unanimous vote required for significant investigations almost impossible to achieve. The Department of Justice is also authorized to launch investigations, but prosecutions under the Federal Election Campaign Act are uncommon. If convicted, violators can be subject to criminal fines and up to five years in prison.