“You can lead on this in a way that nobody else can,” said Rep. Brian Mast (R-Fla.), a recent convert to banning assault weapons, in a bipartisan meeting with Trump Wednesday at the White House. “For all those Americans out there that — the Second Amendment is so critically important to them — they believe you — that you're not going to go into their home and take their firearms. So you have a credibility that nobody else can bring to this.”
Trump has one more big potential advantage: He got elected as a darling of the National Rifle Association, but he seems to be contemplating blowing them off. And he may be one of the few Republicans in Washington who can afford to do so. His challenge will be convincing others to come along.
“They have great power over you people. They have less power over me. I don't need it. I don't — what do I need?,” Trump said in Wednesday's off-the-rails bipartisan meeting on gun control with lawmakers.
Had Trump said something to that effect during the presidential campaign, it would have been laughably false. Trump is arguably one of the most pro-gun presidential candidates in recent history. After the mass shooting in San Bernardino, Calif., Trump campaigned on arming more people and falsely accused Hillary Clinton of wanting to abolish the Second Amendment. “We're getting rid of gun-free zones, I can tell you,” he said. He spoke at its annual convention, and the NRA responded in kind. It spent an estimated $30 million to get him elected.
“I will not let you down. Remember that, I will not let you down,” Trump said at an NRA convention where it endorsed him, before the Republican primary was officially over.
After getting elected, it seemed like everything was going according to plan for the NRA. Trump became the first sitting president since Ronald Reagan to address its annual meeting.
But as Trump himself said Wednesday, that symbiotic relationship could end anytime he wants it to. Yes, he's running for reelection in 2020. And yes, $30 million would be extremely helpful for a president whose approval ratings suggest that he could be vulnerable.
But Trump is betting he'd get the NRA's help anyway, even if he bucks it right now in this pivotal national moment on guns. It's likely a safe bet.
It would be remarkable for the NRA not to endorse the sitting Republican president. The NRA could endorse a primary challenger to him, but that would risk being a giant waste of money and a ding on its reputation, especially if Trump ends up winning again.
Against that backdrop, Trump does seem to be laying the groundwork to back away from the NRA. He is carefully casting himself as a liaison between the NRA and lawmakers who want gun control.
But Trump also doesn't seem to have made up his mind on whether to break with the NRA. The organization's chief, Wayne LaPierre, spoke at the Conservative Political Action Conference shortly after the mass shooting in Parkland, Fla., where he used language about “hardening schools” that Trump has echoed. Trump lunched with LaPierre and other NRA leaders the next weekend, later promising that the NRA was open to “doing the right thing.”
In Wednesday's meeting, Trump seemed acutely aware of the NRA's positions and when he was crossing them: “You have a case right now where somebody can buy a handgun at 21 — now this is not a popular thing to say in terms of the NRA, but I'm saying [it] anyway,” he said.
Trump talked about the NRA so much that at one point, a Democratic congressman tried to steer the president away from the NRA. “We understand, Mr. President, that you met with the NRA,” Rep. Ted Deutch (D-Fla.) said. “What matters here is not the NRA.”
If Trump does decide to ditch the NRA, the bigger challenge for him will be convincing a majority of Republicans in Congress to do so, too.
The NRA's influence is wide and deep. It is a reliable, prolific check-cutter to Republicans in Congress, especially those who are in tight races. In 2016, it donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to states' Republican delegations.
GOP lawmakers who didn't stand with it got nothing. Sen. Patrick J. Toomey (R-Pa.) was in a tight race, but he got zero dollars from the NRA in 2016 for leading an effort after the 2012 Newtown, Conn., elementary school shooting to expand universal background checks.
When trying to do something daring, the president's main job is to provide political cover for those who are sticking their necks out. Trump didn't explicitly promise that Wednesday — and even if he had, lawmakers would be correct to be skeptical about whether he'd be willing to keep his word.
But if Trump did really want to go all-in on gun control, he could make a big difference.
As Toomey reassured the president Wednesday: “If you come to Congress, if you come to Republicans and say, ‘We are going to do a Manchin-Toomey-like bill to get comprehensive background checks,’ it will pass.”
“But,” Toomey warned, “if this meeting ends up with just sort of vague notions of future compromise, then nothing will happen.”
The meeting did end in vagaries. But it's not too late for Trump to change his mind. The most pro-NRA president in recent history arguably doesn't need the NRA anymore.