The Trump campaign and the National Rifle Association appear to have illegally coordinated their ad buys during the 2016 presidential campaign, according to an investigation published Thursday by the nonprofit gun-related news organization the Trace and Mother Jones magazine. The coordination wasn’t even subtle; it was done out in the open and filed with the Federal Elections Commission and the Federal Communications Commission, according to the report. The NRA dumped $30 million into Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, making it Trump’s largest independent conservative group booster. During the run-up to Election Day, the Trump campaign and the NRA bought and placed millions of dollars’ worth of strikingly similar targeted ads using what amounts functionally to the exact same media firm using two different firm names, Red Eagle and American Media & Advocacy Group, but run by the same people.
“The two purchases may have looked coincidental; Red Eagle and AMAG appear at first glance to be separate firms. But each is closely connected to a major conservative media-consulting firm called National Media Research, Planning and Placement,” the Trace and Mother Jones report. “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.”
The pair’s investigation found FCC filings that listed at least four current or former National Media employees as representatives of both the Trump campaign and the NRA, but the overlap didn’t stop there:
Red Eagle Media, the firm that the NRA used to place its pro-Trump ads, is merely an “assumed or fictitious name” used by National Media, according to corporate records. Corporate, FEC, and FCC records for all three entities list the addresses of 815 Slaters Lane or 817 Slaters Lane, a pair of adjacent brick buildings that share a parking lot in the historic Old Town section of Alexandria. … Records in the FCC “public inspection files”—files that television stations maintain in order to comply with transparency regulations around political advertising—show that Red Eagle and AMAG often bought ads around the same time, on the same stations, for the NRA and the Trump campaign, respectively.
Independent groups, such as the NRA, can spend freely to help elect a candidate if, by law, they don’t coordinate with that candidate’s campaign; coordination would make any ad buy an in-kind donation, which would be capped at $5,000. Campaign finance experts told the Trace and Mother Jones that the NRA/Trump ad buys were the most egregious coordination they’d seen, but the FEC is unlikely to launch an investigation because it is mired in a yearslong partisan squabble that has left it with only four of six commissioners and unable to get a quorum to take action.