Oliver North announced Saturday that he would not serve a second term as National Rifle Association president, making it clear he had been forced out by the gun lobby's leadership after his own failed attempt to remove the NRA's longtime CEO in a burgeoning divide over the group's finances and media operations.
"Please know I hoped to be with you today as NRA president endorsed for reelection. I'm now informed that will not happen," North said in a statement that was read by Richard Childress, the NRA's first vice president, to members at the group's annual convention.
North, whose one-year term ends Monday, did not show up for the meeting, and his spot on the stage was left empty, his nameplate still in its place. His statement was largely met with silence. Wayne LaPierre, whom North had tried to push out, later received two standing ovations.
It was a stunning conclusion to a battle between two conservative and Second Amendment titans — North, the retired Marine lieutenant colonel with a ramrod demeanor who was at the center of the Iran-Contra scandal of the 1980s, and LaPierre, who has been battle-tested in the decades since he took up the mantle of gun rights. He has fought back challenges that have arisen over the decades, seemingly emerging unscathed each time. In this latest effort, he pushed back against North, telling members of the NRA's board of directors that North had threatened to release "damaging" information about him to them and saying it amounted to an "extortion" attempt.
Hundreds of the NRA's estimated 5 million members packed into the convention center in Indianapolis where the group's annual meetings were being held. Near the end of the two-hour meeting, some members challenged efforts to adjourn and pushed to question the board about controversies involving its financial management, the relationship with its longtime public relations firm and details of what North sought to raise about alleged misspending, sexual harassment and other mismanagement.
But those cries were drowned out as some board members urged such conversations not to be held at such a large public forum, even if the media were eventually discharged from the room.
"We don't want to give the other side any more information than they already have," said Tom King, a board member from New York for more than a decade.
Offered Marion Hammer, a former NRA president and longtime lobbyist from Florida: "The life's blood of this organization is on the line. We are under fire from without. We do not need to be under attack from within."
The internal dispute first spilled out in public after the NRA in recent weeks filed a lawsuit against Ackerman McQueen, the Oklahoma-based public relations firm that has earned tens of millions of dollars in the decades since it began shaping the gun lobby's fierce talking points. The NRA's lawsuit accuses Ackerman McQueen of refusing to hand over financial records to account for its billings.
North has a $1 million contract with Ackerman McQueen, raising alarm bells among some in the NRA about conflicts of interest. He has a show called "American Heroes" on NRATV, the online TV station created and operated by Ackerman McQueen. NRATV and Ackerman McQueen's billings are at the center of the turmoil, with some members and board members questioning whether they were getting any value for the money devoted to that part of the operation. In 2017 alone, the NRA paid the firm $40 million.
NRATV's programming is provocative, often taking on topics far afield from gun rights, leading some members to wonder if it was damaging its efforts to further gun rights and bring in new members.
The NRA also has faced some financial and regulator struggles in recent years, and there remain concerns that New York authorities in particular — the state where the NRA created its charter — are looking to strip it of its nonprofit status.
An outside lawyer for the NRA, William A. Brewer, said Saturday that New York's attorney general has opened an investigation into the organization.
In his statement, North said a committee should be set up to review the NRA's finances and operations.
"There is a clear crisis and it needs to be dealt with" if the NRA is to survive, he said.
Childress, who read North's statement, said he only found out the night before that he would be asked to read it. A message left with the Freedom Alliance, a nonprofit group founded by North in the 1990s, seeking to contact North, was not immediately returned.
In his speech later Saturday, LaPierre stuck to standard NRA talking points, going after the mainstream media and lawmakers who seek to restrict gun rights. He told the crowd that efforts to strip away gun rights will fail.
"We won't accept it. We will resist it. We won't give an inch," he said.
North, 75, was a military aide to the National Security Council during the Reagan administration in the 1980s when he entered the spotlight for his role in arranging the secret sale of weapons to Iran and the diversion of the proceeds to the anti-communist Contra rebels in Nicaragua.
He was convicted in 1989 of obstructing Congress during its investigation, destroying government documents and accepting an illegal gratuity. Those convictions were overturned in 1991. Embraced by many on the right, he went on to run for office, write several books and serve as a commentator on Fox News.
Associated Press writer Denise Lavoie contributed to this report.