Though Donald Trump has done many things as president that have pleased Republicans, he does not have a single meaningful legislative accomplishment to his name. He has signed some bills, the most important of which was a huge tax break that went mostly to corporations and the wealthy, but that didn’t exactly require deft legislative maneuvering on Trump’s part. Republicans had full control of Congress, and they would have cut taxes for corporations and the wealthy even if a meteor capable of wiping out out all life on Earth was set to hit the planet a week later.
But as pressure builds for the federal government to take action on guns in the wake of a string of mass shootings, Trump is now saying that he wants legislation passed. “I think a lot of really meaningful things on background checks will take place, including red flags, including a lot of other very, very important items. And the Republicans are looking at it very seriously,” he told reporters last week.
Trump has been talking to senators from both parties about legislation, including Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), who co-sponsored a universal background check bill in 2013 after 20 children were massacred in Connecticut. (That bill fell to a Republican filibuster.) But Trump has also had multiple conversations with National Rifle Association CEO Wayne LaPierre, who no doubt made clear the NRA’s opposition to expanded background checks. As Trump promised the NRA not long after taking office, “You came through for me, and I am going to come through for you.”
So in the White House, uncertainty reigns:
What President Trump has not done yet is the kind of arm-twisting of Republican senators wary of gun control legislation that will be necessary to force a bill through Congress, according to interviews with White House officials and congressional aides. He has shown no interest so far in a major address to ensure that public opinion is behind such a move. And he and his aides have yet to settle on what he will actually propose.
But they have commissioned a poll through his campaign to assess where his supporters are on different gun control measures, and they will have the results by September, when the Senate returns from summer recess, according to three people briefed on the plans.
They commissioned a poll! Now that is leadership.
It’s safe to assume that Trump has no genuine beliefs about the gun issue, at least none he particularly cares about. As on other issues, he has expressed some liberal positions in the past, but when he ran for president, he became more conservative. But Trump’s feeling pressured in both directions. Public eagerness for action on guns is intense, and Trump would love to be able to say he did something that other presidents couldn’t do. On the other hand, his highest priority is always doing what his base wants, and it’s widely assumed that his base will reject any real limits on guns.
That might not actually be true, however. The measures being discussed are quite modest: Enhanced background checks (which even Fox News polls show at 90 percent support among the public) and “red flag” measures that would allow guns to be temporarily taken from people believed to pose a risk of imminent violence are the two mentioned most often. It’s a sign of how afraid they are of taking bold steps that one of the suggestions the White House is reportedly considering is mandating the death penalty for mass shooters. Perhaps they’ll throw in the death penalty for suicide bombers as well, since that would have about as much practical effect.
But this is all almost certain to fail for one key reason: It depends on Trump. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has made clear that he won’t allow anything to be considered by the Senate unless it has Trump’s full support. His members will only risk sticking their necks out on guns if they know that Trump is there to tell their voters not to punish them for it. As one Republican Senate aide told The Post’s Jacqueline Alemany, “It’s sort of one of those issues that only Trump could give Republicans the cover that they need to make this politically viable.”
Will the senators trust him to do that? They’ve seen how he has retreated from promises on guns when the NRA objects. They’ve seen how he will take one position, then reverse himself if he gets criticized in conservative media.
Even worse, getting a bill passed will require complex and delicate negotiations involving an understanding of the different incentives and risks faced by members of Congress from both parties. Does anyone seriously think Trump could pull this off?
Look at his legislative record over the past two and a half years. He signed a few bills that Democrats and Republicans in Congress came together to agree on, on issues like opioids and criminal justice reform. But what he hasn’t done is participate in any meaningful way in a legislative effort that required any negotiating skill, to navigate through tricky competing interests and arrive at a solution on a controversial issue where the outcome was uncertain. He tried and failed to repeal the Affordable Care Act and to get his border wall funded. He shut down the government. He proved again and again that he is, in fact, the world’s worst negotiator.
So if we want anything real to happen on gun safety at the federal level, we’ll need someone else is in the Oval Office.