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NRA’s 2016 Donation to Trump’s Campaign Pays Off

President Donald Trump has remained vague and cool in public on the idea of pursuing background check legislation in Congress in recent days, after a call with National Rifle Association chief Wayne LaPierre. The NRA spent significant sums on behalf of the Trump campaign in 2016, and could be a source for campaign contributions to the candidate and congressional Republicans in 2020.

In 2016, the NRA spent more than $30 million on behalf of the Trump campaign, according to Federal Election Commission data. It was a staggering number compared to 2012, when the group spent about $13 million to try to unseat President Barack Obama and elect Mitt Romney. The Trump campaign represented the lion's share of the group's spending—the NRA spent $54 million on the 2016 elections in total. 

There are suggestions that the total amount could be higher. In 2017, McClatchy reported that the total number for spending in 2016 was "close to $70 million, and perhaps much more." 

However, a full accounting of the group's spending in 2016 may never come to light. An FEC investigation into another McClatchy report of whether the former Russian central banker, Alexander Torshin, illegally funneled money to the NRA to aid Trump, has been dropped by the FEC after Republican members objected to it. (The original complaint stemmed from a liberal group, the American Democracy Legal Fund.)

Regardless of the exact figure of the NRA's spending, Trump's interest in pursuing background check legislation has waned.

After back-to-back mass shootings in Dayton, Ohio, and El Paso, Texas, left 31 dead earlier this month, Trump said on August 7, "we can bring up background checks like we’ve never had before." In recent days, he has stayed cool and charged that Democrats would "give up" the Second Amendment. The Democratic-controlled House of Representatives has passed background check legislation, while Senate Republicans have not considered the legislation.

"We have very, very strong background checks right now, but we have sort of missing areas and areas that don’t complete the whole circle,” he said on August 20, “I have to tell you that it’s a mental problem." On August 21, he remained noncommittal, saying that he had an "appetite" for background checks but reiterating that background checks were already "strong."

The NRA's financial influence for Trump and the Republican Party is at risk for the 2020 election. The group has faced financial scandals, investigations from New York State, and a rebellion among donors, leading to questions of whether the group can match its 2016 spending. Nevertheless, the possibility of the election of a Democratic president could bolster the group's fortunes.

That is, at least, what the NRA is hoping. On August 21, the group tweeted about an "extreme" gun control plan by Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren. On August 20, the group posted a tweet from LaPierre in support of Trump: "I spoke to the president today. We discussed the best ways to prevent these types of tragedies. @realDonaldTrump is a strong #2A President and supports our Right to Keep and Bear Arms!"

Trump, for his part, has made no secret that he wants the group to remain strong. In April, he tweeted that the group was "under siege" by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Attorney General Tish James. He went on: "It must get its act together quickly, stop the internal fighting, & get back to GREATNESS - FAST!"

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