It’s a classic Donald Trump move: Keep Washington in suspense.
While Trump’s recent remarks on gun control legislation have been widely interpreted as a step back from an earlier push to expand background checks, White House and congressional aides continue to meet privately to discuss possible congressional and executive actions, according to Republicans and Democrats and advocacy groups on both sides. Yet as White House aides solicit ideas, they are not revealing what, if anything, Trump wants to do.
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Trump received a formal briefing on Tuesday from his staff about possible options, according to a White House official.
Part of the calculus for Trump is the fact that any decision will carry significant political ramifications, according to several Republicans. Moving on a bill — any bill — could help win over moderate suburban voters in 2020 that he lost over the last two years. But doing so could also anger Trump’s fervent base, another critical voting bloc in the upcoming election.
“I don’t think the president even knows what he is doing on this,” said Dudley Brown, president of the National Association for Gun Rights, which opposes new gun restrictions.
Trump was coy on Tuesday.
“We have very, very strong background checks right now,” he told reporters at the White House. “But we have sort of missing areas and areas that don’t complete the whole circle.”
The White House official said Trump is considering changes to background check laws or so-called red flag laws, which allow authorities to take guns away from individuals a judge deems dangerous. He is also looking at other policies that aim to address domestic terrorism, violent video games and mental health treatment.
A Republican close to the White House who is involved with the discussions said Trump is looking at these options for when Congress returns from its August recess.
The person said it’s “politically achievable” to pass some legislation, perhaps a scaled-back background check bill or a red flag law, if Trump backs them. “If he gets behind something, then Republicans will follow,” the person said. “At some point, the president has to signal to the party what he’s for.”
Still, the odds of serious gun control legislation clearing Congress and being signed into law remain slim, especially as a pair of shootings in Texas and Ohio that left 31 people dead fade from public memory.
In recent days, many conversations at the White House and on Capitol Hill have focused on the red flag proposal.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a Trump ally and chairman of the Judiciary Committee, is working on legislation that would provide grants to states to implement red flag laws. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla) also has a red flag bill that would give money to states.
“It is a legitimate political argument to make that our background check system should be more extensive but I don’t understand why that has become the holy grail of action when that has nothing to do with what caused these shootings,” Rubio said in a recent interview.
Red flag legislation is likely the best bet for Republicans to get something through. But gun rights groups and several GOP members — including Wyoming Sen. John Barrasso, the No. 3 Senate Republican, and Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.) — have expressed concerns about whether targets of the law would have access to proper due process. Wisconsin GOP Sen. Ron Johnson, who chairs the Homeland Security Committee, said Tuesday he did not support a federal red flag law but could get behind Graham’s bill.
“I don’t anticipate we’re going to pass a federal red flag law,” Johnson said. “I think that all that Chairman Graham is talking about is a grant program … which I think would be the appropriate thing, let states decide”
Many Democrats are still pushing for a background check bill, which might draw limited GOP support. A spokesperson for Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) said the office has “had ongoing conversations, at the staff level, with the White House regarding background checks both last week and this week.”
Sen. Chris Murphy, (D-Conn.) said he spoke to Trump last week and expressed support for working across the aisle to develop a background check bill that can pass the Senate. “Until I hear directly from him, I’m not willing to concede that history repeated itself and that he has walked away from the commitment he made,” Murphy said Tuesday.
For his part, Trump said on Tuesday that “we are in very meaningful discussions with the Democrats.”
Some Republicans have accused the Democrats of overreaching by pushing policies they know will never pass, including a ban on assault weapons. This tactic, these Republicans argued, decreases the chances the two sides will come together to pass anything.
When the Democratic-controlled House returns from its own recess, the Judiciary Committee plans to approve a trio of bills: one that would ban high-capacity magazines, another encouraging states to adopt policies to keep firearms from people deemed “a risk to themselves or others” and another to prohibit people convicted of misdemeanor hate crimes from possessing guns.
It’s unlikely the GOP-led Senate would take up any of the measures.
“The Democrats’ overreach destroys any kind of process. They’re unrealistic about what’s going to happen,” said Alan Gottlieb, founder of the Second Amendment Foundation, which opposes further gun control legislation. “Initially I thought something was going to happen. I’m not sure anymore.”
At the White House, aides have been meeting with several gun rights groups, which are all hesitant about new legislation. The Committee for the Rights to Keep and Bear Arms came in for a meeting, and followed up with written information, the group said. John Velleco, the executive vice president for Gun Owners of America, is also on the books for a meeting later this week, the group said. White House staffers have also been talking to Democratic congressional aides.
Some Republicans have urged Trump to adopt gun control measures in a bid to bolster support among suburban voters that were instrumental to the president’s 2016 win.
“The reflexive political analyses are too focused on this idea that any action on these measures will alienate ‘base’ Republicans and Second Amendment supporters,” said Republican strategist Kevin Madden, who worked for 2012 presidential nominee Mitt Romney. “The data indicates there is a powerful political coalition of suburban voters, women voters, independents and a majority of Republicans that will support pragmatic measures to combat gun violence. So, for Trump and other Republicans, the opportunity is there to appeal to and have an impact with these voters who are crucial to 2020.”
Trump’s campaign is conducting a poll to gauge interest among Republicans for different actions, according to the Republican close to the White House. And a former adviser who remains close to the campaign cautioned that the president won’t make a move until he sees how Republicans react after the publicity surrounding the latest shootings subsides.
Brown, of the National Association for Gun Rights, said Trump will never get support from those who support additional gun control. “If Donald Trump believes he’s getting the votes of left-wing gun control advocates, he’s not listening to good advice,” he said.
Trump has previously expressed support for implementing more gun restrictions, most notably after the February 2018 mass shooting at high school in Parkland, Fla. Trump initially seemed to endorse strengthened background checks, but then backed down after opposition from the National Rifle Association and fellow Republicans.
But the nation’s politics have shifted since then, argued Robin Lloyd, managing director of Giffords, a group founded by former Rep. Gabby Giffords after she was shot and gravely wounded. Lloyd noted that several House members, including Democrats Abigail Spanberger of Virginia, Lizzie Fletcher of Texas and Andy Krug in Minnesota, won swing elections after campaigning on gun control.
“The exit polling [in 2018] show this is a really important issue to voters,” she said. “If he wants to get re-elected, he needs to do something on gun safety.”
Yet the president has remained a cipher on the subject in recent weeks. While at first he said there was a “great appetite” for tightening background checks, he has more recently stressed the fact that the U.S. already has “very strong background checks” and emphasized the need to address mental health issues. Many have noted that the shifting rhetoric came after Trump spoke several times with NRA President Wayne LaPierre.
Some advocates chalk up the apparent waffling to the president’s tendency to parrot the views of the people he spoke to last.
“I don’t want to overread this,” said Michael Hammond, legislative counsel for Gun Owners of America, which opposes new gun restrictions. “He likes to make the person he’s speaking to happy so he says what they want to hear.”
Burgess Everett and Marianne Levine contributed to this report.