Once again, President Trump underscored the vast difference between Trump the person and Trump the administration when it comes to his stance on divisive issues. And that's why, in hindsight, it was always pretty clear that Trump would not support any gun-control proposals.
Where Trump's White House ended up on how to respond to school shootings is a world away from where he started. On Sunday, the White House released its proposal, which focuses on arming teachers and doesn't mention raising the age limit for assault rifle purchases, a move for which Trump had expressed support.
That's just the latest contradiction from the president on guns. He started out as one of the most pro-gun and pro-National Rifle Association presidents in modern history. After the massacre at a high school in Parkland, Fla., last month, he lent his support to a dizzying array of proposals from both sides. He:
- Tweeted his support for “strengthening background checks”
- Called the leaders of the NRA “Great People and Great American Patriots”
- Took language right from the NRA to support “hardening” schools by arming teachers
- Promised to ban bump stocks
- Talked about raising the age to buy assault weapons from 18 to 21
- Praised a new Florida gun-control law that does just that
- Appeared to support Democrats' proposals for banning assault weapons
- Snubbed the idea of federal commissions a day before his White House announced its own commission on school violence
The White House ended up far to the right of most of these proposals. Its idea to arm teachers is so controversial that most Republicans in Congress don't support it.
We saw a similar unraveling of compromise play out in a January immigration debate. And a pattern is starting to emerge on how to read Trump's wild spins on divisive issues: When it comes time for the White House to put its own ideas in writing, he'll land to the right of most of Washington, no matter how he seemed to be at the center or left just a few days before.
When the cameras were invited to a White House meeting with Trump and bipartisan lawmakers a few weeks ago, Trump seemed so open to gun-control proposals that he accused one of the most pro-gun-control Republicans in the Senate, Patrick J. Toomey (Pa.), of being afraid of the NRA because Toomey's universal background check bill from 2013 also didn't raise the age limit for buying assault rifles.
Then, Trump made one of the most pro-gun-control Democrats in the Senate, Dianne Feinstein (Calif.), positively giddy with the suggestion that Congress should ban assault weapons.
Actually, almost all Senate Democrats were thrilled after that meeting. They held a news conference the very next day on Capitol Hill to unveil their gun-control wish list, hoping to build on the momentum the president had just given them.
“I am sure many of you in this room and many Americans around the country watched the president's meeting on gun violence yesterday,” said Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), “and were rather stunned and surprised. Many of us pleasantly.”
Though Democrats say they were skeptical, too. After sitting down with Trump on guns, Schumer brought up Trump's flip-flops on immigration as a cautionary flag: “The president was pulled back by the hard right and prevented a bipartisan proposal from emerging.”
But they had to try to test the waters to see what support they had from the president.
And whatever support they may have had from Trump fizzled almost as soon as he gave it. Trump ignored their outstretched hand on universal background checks and started talking more about arming teachers. Less than two weeks after that meeting, his White House formalized his drift back to the right. It announced Sunday night that the administration would work with states to help train schoolteachers to carry guns, a proposal plucked straight from the NRA, and that it would endorse a Republican-led bill that reinforces the background check system but doesn't expand it.
Pretty much the same pattern played out a few months ago when Congress was trying to come up with an immigration deal to protect young undocumented “dreamers” from deportation. Democrats thought they had a deal, only to watch Trump renege. Trump ultimately put forward an immigration proposal to drastically change the legal immigration system — a proposal is so conservative that most Republicans in Congress won't support it.
There are two possibilities here about what's leading Trump to spin so much on divisive issues, and they aren't mutually exclusive:
- Trump doesn't know what he wants, and he's also not very familiar with the issues. That leads him to either mistakenly support more liberal solutions or honestly support them without understanding the politics behind it. In the on-camera meeting with lawmakers on immigration in January, Trump appeared to agree with Democrats on a bill just to legalize dreamers without anything in exchange. House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) had to interject to correct the president that such a move was actually the opposite of what Trump wanted to do. The president seemed genuinely confused:
“Mr. President, you need to be clear, though,” McCarthy said. “I think what Senator Feinstein is asking there — when we talk about just DACA, we don’t want to be back here two years later. You have to have security.” Trump responded: “I think that’s what she’s saying.” “No, I think she’s saying something different,” McCarthy said. (She was.)
- Trump agrees with the last person who talked to him. And that's usually his staff, who have much more access to him than Democrats in Congress. Those are people such as Stephen Miller, a Trump loyalist who even some Republicans in Congress say is too extreme to deal with. “He's been an outlier for years,” Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) said of Miller during the immigration debate, pointing the finger squarely at Miller for scuttling a bipartisan deal on dreamers, a deal Trump seemed open to just days earlier.
Whatever the reason for Trump's hard-right turns on immigration and guns, it underscores what Democrats most fear about negotiating with the president: that no matter what bipartisan compromises the president seems to support when they're across the table from him, he'll fall back to his most conservative positions.