The National Rifle Association lost its longtime political strategist and shut down its live television programming wing this week, adding new scars to the gun rights group as it prepares for the presidential election season.
Chris W. Cox, who had been head of the NRA’s political and lobbying arm since 2002 and was one of its most visible executives, resigned after being accused of participating in an attempted coup to oust Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre.
The news came as the gun rights organization also moved to break with its television network, NRATV.
“I think it all continues to point to the fact that this is going to get worse before it gets better,” said Rob Pincus, an NRA member and executive vice president of the Second Amendment Organization.
The NRA was already reeling from the coup attempt and subsequent ouster of President Oliver North, a worrisome financial picture and a nasty legal battle with the group’s advertising firm.
The travails have left gun control groups salivating over the chance that the NRA, long hailed as the most effective issue group in Washington, is imploding.
New York Attorney General Letitia James is also looking into the group’s nonprofit status, which provides it significant tax benefits, and members of Congress have been looking into potential connections between the group and Russia during the 2016 election cycle.
“Their survival is at stake right now,” said Robert Spitzer, a professor at SUNY Cortland who has written extensively about the politics of gun control. “I think they will survive … but they’re going to have to reorganize. They’re already downsizing [with] the lawsuit against Ackerman McQueen and shutting down NRATV.”
Mr. Cox was suspended after he was implicated in what the NRA called a conspiracy to get rid of Mr. LaPierre. He has denied the allegations.
But Wednesday, Mr. LaPierre told the NRA’s board and staff that Mr. Cox was out and they would soon announce another interim director.
In the meantime, he said, they will “continue to position the NRA for great success in the 2020 election season and beyond.”
“This is the most significant personnel shake-up in decades,” Mr. Spitzer said. “It’s bad from an image point of view, and it has to be bad organizationally because Cox was so important.”
News of Mr. Cox’s departure came as the NRA broke with its television network, which has attracted internal and external criticism for some of its programming decisions.
In one segment that drew significant attention, NRATV depicted characters from the “Thomas the Tank Engine” program in white Ku Klux Klan hoods in a commentary on the U.N. partnership with the cartoon.
“Many members expressed concern about the messaging on NRATV becoming too far removed from our core mission: defending the Second Amendment,” Mr. LaPierre said.
He said there have been problems with Ackerman McQueen, the NRA’s longtime ad firm that was the power behind NRATV and many of the group’s iconic public relations efforts over the years.
The two sides are trading accusations in court, with the NRA saying Ackerman McQueen breached its contract and the media firm saying the NRA is behind on several million dollars in payments.
“They are refusing to pay, in part to harm Ackerman McQueen, but also because the NRA probably is having trouble meeting its financial obligations in large measure due to massive unbudgeted legal costs,” the firm said in a statement.
One source of those legal costs is a lawsuit the NRA filed against New York, arguing that the state illegally discourages banks and insurance companies from doing business with it.
The NRA shake-up also has included former Rep. Allen West, who last month called on Mr. LaPierre to resign and complained of a “cabal of cronyism” at the organization.
Mr. West said the final straw came in April at the group’s annual convention in Indianapolis, where the leadership struggle played out behind closed doors.
Mr. North, for example, delivered a speech as if everything was normal one day. The next day, he was absent as another NRA executive read a resignation letter from him.
Mr. LaPierre accused Mr. North and Ackerman of trying to extort him by threatening to release allegedly damaging information about him unless he agreed to step down.
Mr. North had said he was assigning a special committee to look into alleged financial improprieties by Mr. LaPierre that he said could threaten the NRA’s status as a nonprofit group, but Mr. LaPierre won out in the power struggle and was reelected to his post.
Gun control activists cheered the NRA’s troubles and took credit for them.
“NRATV is dead because of a couple angry teenagers with Twitter,” tweeted Lauren Hogg, a student at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida, which was the site of a 2018 shooting.