A new report by Mother Jones reveals a curious changing of guard in the NRA’s leadership coinciding with developments of the federal investigation of Maria Butina. The path to the NRA presidency has followed a strict hierarchy for the past fifteen years (namely, each President has first served two years as 2nd vice president, then two years as 1st vice president, before serving two one-year terms as president). But on May 7th, according to Mother Jones, then-NRA president Pete Brownell announced “that he would not seek a second annual term in order to devote more time to his family business, a firearms retail company.” That same day, the NRA announced that Oliver North, who was not in the hierarchy of NRA leadership, would unexpectedly become the group’s president. Why would the NRA, a group known for having a strict leadership hierarchy, rush to elect a new President?
As Mother Jones notes, just two weeks before the sudden NRA leadership shakeup, FBI agents raided “the apartment of Maria Butina, a 29-year-old Russian who three months later would be charged by federal prosecutors for allegedly serving as a secret agent for the Russian government in the United States.”
Why this is significant: Brownell and Butina crossed paths before. In December 2015, Butina hosted an NRA delegation in Moscow, which included Brownell and other high-ranking NRA officials. Video from their trip shows Brownell and the rest of the delegation meeting with Svetlana Nikolaeva, an executive of a Russian gun manufacturer and the wife of the Russian oligarch who Butina reportedly referred to as her “funder.”
Is it possible the FBI investigation of Butina led to Brownell’s quick retreat from the NRA leadership? According to Mother Jones, “the NRA did not respond to a request for comment. And neither did Brownell. “He’s not taking calls,” the receptionist at his company says.”
“This changing of the guard—and how it happened—was odd. For fifteen years, the NRA leadership had followed a specific pattern: an officer was elected by the board to serve two consecutive annual terms as second vice president, then two as first vice president, and, finally, two as president. But the Brownell-to-North transition broke this orderly process. North at the time was serving in neither vice president position. And his ascension was a surprise—even to North. The day of the move, North told NRATV, ‘I didn’t expect this to be happening…This was very sudden.’ (North also remarked, ‘A coup is being worked against the president of the United States and every conservative organization on the planet.’)
“This development puzzled NRA watchers. North had not been in the line of succession. He was not prepared for the position and said he would need weeks before he could assume the post. Brownell was the first NRA president in a decade and a half not to seek a second term, and the first vice president, Richard Childress, was passed over. Childress claimed that because of his own commitments he could not even serve as interim president. That job went to the second vice president, Carolyn Meadows. The NRA had been known as an outfit with a strict hierarchy. But now all that was being thrown aside in what North called an ‘unexpected’ and ‘sudden’ action.”
The NRA reported spending a record $55 million on the 2016 elections, including $30 million to support Donald Trump – nearly triple what the group spent during the 2012 presidential race. Most of that money was spent by an arm of the NRA that is not required to disclose its donors, and according to a McClatchy report from January, NRA spending may have actually exceeded $70 million during the 2016 election.