Billing himself as “the best friend gun owners have ever had in the White House,” Donald Trump addressed National Rifle Association members for the eighth time in his political career on Friday night in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania — appearing as the keynote speaker of the NRA Presidential Forum, part of the gun group’s Great American Outdoor Show.
Trump began his address by making promises directly to gun owners. “When I’m back in the Oval Office no one will lay a finger on your firearms,” Trump said. He then alleged: “The only thing standing between me and the obliteration of your Second Amendment is me.”
But as Trump spoke, he quickly pivoted to a rambling complaint about what he decried as a “selective” prosecution of him — but not president Joe Biden — for mishandling classified documents. A special prosecutor Thursday declined to bring charges against Biden. “If he’s not going to be charged then I should not be charged,” Trump declared.
Trump claimed he was being targeted by “very unfriendly and hostile feds.” He blasted Biden, whose mental fitness the Republican special counsel brought into question — much to the ire of the current president. Trump said that he wasn’t sure whom to blame for the supposed disparity of justice. “I don’t know if it’s Biden,” Trump said, “Because I’m not sure he knows he’s alive.”
The rest of Trump’s address decried the “damage destruction and filth” of America’s cities, the “stampede of illegal aliens,” and warned that another Biden administration could lead America into a ruinous conflict. Favoring a strange rhyme, Trump said: “World War III — it will never happen with me.”
Trump and the gun lobby have a long and sordid history — which Trump called a “great relationship.” The former president’s new speech to the NRA comes at a moment of peril for both Trump and the organization, at the hands of the same antagonist — New York Attorney General Letitia James (D).
Trump first addressed NRA members at the gun lobby’s Nashville convention in 2015. The NRA proceeded to spend a staggering $31 million boosting Trump’s 2016 campaign, more than twice what it laid out in favor of Mitt Romney four years earlier.
After his narrow 2016 victory, Trump rewarded the gun rights group by loosening background checks and easing export controls, greasing the skids of gun commerce. Trump later designated gun shops as essential businesses during the Covid-19 pandemic. Even more consequential, he appointed a supermajority of conservatives to the Supreme Court. That bloc united behind the radical 2022 Bruen decision, which bestowed on gun owners a constitutional right to carry handguns in public for self-defense. The lawsuit was brought by an NRA affiliate, the New York State Rifle & Pistol Association.
In advance of the Harrisburg event, the gun lobby praised Trump — the presumptive 2024 Republican nominee — as “a steadfast advocate for the NRA.” The ex-president has stuck with the NRA even at times of scandal, including through the revelation that the NRA was infiltrated by Russian agents, who curried favor with the gun association, seeking to influence GOP decision makers, including Trump.
The former president has also stood by the gun lobby’s side in the aftermath of horrific shootings. He addressed the membership at the 2022 convention just days after the Uvalde school massacre. In that address, Trump mangled the pronunciation of names of the deceased children as a mournful electronic gong sounded in their memory. He has consistently condemned calls for gun control, and after a January school shooting said the right response was to “get over it.”
Both the gun lobby and the former president are in court in New York, facing similar charges of corrupt business dealings.
The NRA is incorporated as a nonprofit in New York. It faces charges of widespread misuse of resources and self-dealing by senior executives. The trial has already resulted in a coup for prosecutors. Wayne LaPierre — the honcho of the NRA over the last three decades — announced his surprise resignation on the eve of opening arguments.
At trial, prosecutors have presented evidence LaPierre misused NRA donor funds for illicit perks, including nearly half a million dollars worth of private jet travel, often for relatives; a $38,000 trip to the Bahamas; and hair and makeup sessions for LaPierre’s wife that ran as much as $10,000 a pop. Jurors have also heard of lavish yacht vacations, paid for by an NRA contractor, that were not reported by LaPierre as gifts.
LaPierre previously repaid $300,000 to the NRA for “excess benefits,” but could be on the hook to repay millions more. The former CEO of the organization has claimed some of his perks were legitimate, including the purchase of boutique Zegna suits, which he described as justified because they were “costumes” he needed to wear on TV.
The state of New York is seeking a court-appointed monitor to oversee the gun lobby. That result may be unlikely, but the NRA nonetheless has been hobbled. As its court troubles have mounted, the NRA’s revenue and membership have cratered, and the group has had to shell out tens of millions in its legal defense.
While the NRA remains a formidable political force, it appears to lack the king-making power it possessed in Trump’s first presidential bid.
Trump similarly is facing big trouble from James in New York, as his family Trump Organization was found in a civil trial to have committed fraud, revolving around inflated business valuations, including the square footage of his personal penthouse. The former president and his children Eric, Don Jr. and Ivanka are currently awaiting judgment — which could include a $370 million fine or an even more thorough “dissolution” of the former president’s real estate empire.
The Harrisburg event featured the first public speech by LaPierre’s little-known successor at the helm of the NRA, new CEO Andrew Arulanandam. Wearing a sharp corporate suit, Arulanandam pumped a fist and declared that “2024 will be a decisive year in our fight to defend our rights,” adding: “It will be up to all of us to make ensure that we have… leaders like your fellow NRA member, Donald J. Trump.”