Engage on what, exactly? After a week of contradictory statements, no one’s quite sure where Donald Trump stands on various components of new gun legislation. The only thing that seems certain is that Trump wants to take action, but perhaps doesn’t necessarily want to get out in front of it. In tweets last night, Trump announced that he’d just emerged from a meeting of stakeholders on the issue — but called on Congress to take action rather than offer a proposal:
…I am hopeful Congress will engage with my Team to pass meaningful legislation that will make a real difference and, most importantly, Save Lives!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 22, 2019
What exactly does this mean? USA Today’s not sure, and the White House wouldn’t even confirm a meeting had taken place:
Trump’s tweets offered no specifics about what kind of legislation he hopes Congress pursues when lawmakers return from their summer recess next month. The tweets follow a dizzying series of statements in which the president has professed his support for tougher background checks and then appeared to back off that position.
White House aides did not immediately respond to questions about who the president met with. There were no such meetings included on Trump’s public schedule for Thursday.
The Hill didn’t get any answers yesterday either. One former Trump adviser explained that Trump likes to offer his thoughts publicly as they come to him in order to gauge the public sentiment. This week might have been one of the more intense of Trump’s presidency in that sense, but it shouldn’t be unfamiliar by now:
The president first told reporters he had an “appetite” for background checks before later warning such legislation could be a “slippery slope” to confiscating firearms. He later said he was not looking at pursuing a payroll tax cut, walking back his position from 24 hours earlier.
“He has his deliberations out in public,” another former White House official said. “He’s not somebody who waits until he comes to a final conclusion. He’s willing to say what he’s thinking when he’s thinking it, and his mind will often change. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.”
Sam Nunberg, a former Trump campaign adviser, argued that this week — a particularly whiplash-inducing one even by Trump standards — won’t matter much to voters in the long run, and suggested some tune out the constant barrage of presidential news because they find it exhausting.
The last explicit word on gun laws is that expanded background checks are back on the table, perhaps with specific limits. Trump told reporters on Tuesday that he was backing away from that idea because of concerns over the 2nd Amendment, but yesterday White House officials said they’re still on the table:
The person, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations, said the White House’s policy and legislative affairs teams have been discussing potential options, in addition to ongoing conversations with members of Congress led by Eric Ueland, the director of legislative affairs.
They also said “meaningful background checks” remain on the table, even after Trump spoke again by phone Tuesday with NRA chief executive Wayne LaPierre.
LaPierre tweeted the two had discussed “the best ways to prevent these types of tragedies,” and called Trump “a strong #2A President.”
While two Democrats on the Hill described talks with the White House as largely stalled, others said White House officials have been engaged in continued conversations with Democratic and Republican lawmakers. That includes staff-level conversations with Murphy’s office since he spoke with Trump last Sunday, according to one Senate staffer.
“The White House has been very responsive to our office,” said Steve Kelly, a spokesman for Republican Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, who has long pushed a bipartisan expanded background check bill with Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia. “We’ve had ongoing conversations, at the staff level, with the White House regarding background checks both last week and this week.”
By this time, everyone’s head must be spinning. Where does Trump stand on expanded background checks? Maybe the NRA knows — and maybe that’s why they’re retooling their legal team, although it won’t be the only reason. The group booted its longtime attorneys after the NRA’s aborted palace coup against Wayne LaPierre, touching off what the NYT calls a “purge”:
Now Mr. LaPierre is continuing to purge opponents. On Thursday, the N.R.A. dismissed its longtime outside counsel, Charles J. Cooper, the chairman of the Washington law firm Cooper & Kirk, people with knowledge of the decision said. A second outside counsel and a top in-house counsel resigned. The departures come after an internal inquiry showed that the lawyers were involved in an effort to undermine Mr. LaPierre.
The N.R.A. is also considering halting payments to its former second in command, Christopher Cox, who left in June but is still on the payroll, said the people, who insisted on anonymity to discuss internal matters.
The N.R.A.’s apparent success in fending off stricter gun regulations represents an important show of strength for Mr. LaPierre after months of damaging turmoil. And it shows that even in a diminished state, the group wields vast influence over the Republican Party, and particularly President Trump, after spending more than $30 million to help get him elected.
If Trump decides to pursue the expanded background checks, however, that might prompt a new palace coup. And the NRA might have reason to regret cutting Cooper loose, the Washington Post suggests:
Alan Gottlieb, founder of the Second Amendment Foundation and chairman of the Citizens Committee for the Right To Bear Arms, said he was startled that the NRA would let Cooper go.
“This surprises me very much because Charles Cooper and his law firm have done excellent work on Second Amendment issues,” he said.
With the NRA in this much disarray, their ability to influence Trump will be somewhat limited. Trump’s biggest concern right now is his own re-election, and if LaPierre is too consumed in purges and internecine fights, the NRA will be less useful to that end than to be seen taking significant action in the wake of two mass shootings. He may not want to get too far out in front of any particular formulation, but Trump still wants Congress to settle on a bipartisan formula that he can live with, and most importantly sell as his own.
And if they don’t come up with that formulation, then Trump has Congress as a scapegoat. That’s a pretty good strategy for someone who induces “whiplash” with his stream-of-consciousness rhetoric.