This post has been updated with Trump’s latest comments indicating a qualified openness to new background checks.
For the second time during his presidency, Donald Trump is threatening to buck the National Rifle Association on gun control. The first time — after the February 2018 mass shooting in Parkland, Fla. — he talked tough and did nothing to back it up. And most everyone thinks that is likely to happen again.
But the great irony of Trump’s presidency is this: He is perhaps the one recent president who could get it done and break the gridlock on an intractable issue if — and emphasis on if — he wanted to.
The Washington Post reported Thursday that Trump’s expressed openness to extensive and “strong” new background checks on gun purchases earned him a call from NRA chief executive Wayne LaPierre this week:
... LaPierre spoke with Trump on Tuesday after the president expressed support for a background check bill and told him it would not be popular among Trump’s supporters, according to officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to freely discuss internal talks. LaPierre also argued against the bill’s merits, the officials said.
The NRA, which opposes the legislation sponsored by Sens. Patrick J. Toomey (R-Pa.) and Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.), declined to comment.
Trump on Friday morning downplayed the idea of a clash with the NRA, tweeting that he wanted to make sure the organization’s views are “respected” and adding later that he “could” be at odds with NRA but that “I don’t think I’ll be there.” But he also pressed forward with the vague idea of “meaningful Background Checks”:
And the NRA has also staked out a pretty absolutist position on additional background checks: It regards more gun control as a slippery slope. So if Trump is to do anything significant, it will probably be over the NRA’s objections -- or with its acquiescence.
Everyone should be skeptical that Trump will ultimately lift a finger on gun control. He made no mention of it in his 10-minute address to the nation on Monday, even emphasizing that, “Mental illness and hatred pulls the trigger — not the gun.” He also has a tendency to float ideas he never follows through on.
And then there is the matter of his base, to which Trump has catered almost incessantly during his presidency. LaPierre rightly noted that the president’s supporters might feel alienated if Trump gets behind increased gun control, so why would he suddenly take that risk after spending four years cultivating a devoted following on the right?
With those caveats established, he could hypothetically do it — and probably even succeed. That same credibility with his base gives him political capital to spend. He has shown that he can bend the party to his will on issues such as the size of government and free trade. I’ve made a similar argument about comprehensive immigration reform and other issues. George W. Bush couldn’t bring his party along with him on immigration. But it’s not difficult to see Republicans lining up behind Trump. After all, for many of them, their support is less about the details and more about the man and his ethos.
Trump told Republicans after the Parkland massacre that they were “petrified” of the NRA but that he was less accountable to the potent lobbying organization. “They have great power over you people,” he said on Feb. 28. “They have less power over me.” Although there was some truth to that at the time, there might be even more now. The NRA is riven by infighting and increasing questions over its use of funding — including reports that LaPierre wanted the organization to buy him a $6 million mansion last year.
If Trump were to support some kind of bill on background checks, the NRA would have to decide how much of a showdown it wants. The NRA has a devoted following, but so does Trump. Going at Trump would risk forcing people to choose — and it could potentially be an embarrassing loss for the NRA at an inopportune time, especially given that the vast majority of Americans support tougher background checks. It also risks damaging Trump’s chances for reelection in 2020 and could possibly help Democrats win back the Oval Office.
Is the NRA really going to pick that fight in its current state? Maybe it will decide it has to, considering what’s at stake. It’s hardly a battle the organization is guaranteed to win. Trump could take on the NRA and succeed, possibly without even much of a fight.
If you’re a congressional Republican, you’re biding your time. Trump has proved himself to be nothing if not an untrustworthy partner when it comes to legislating. Nobody wants to go out on a limb for some form of gun control and then see Trump retreat. The president will have to prove he’s devoted to the cause before support materializes on the right.
He is unlikely to do it, but if the time were ever ripe for movement on this issue, given the confluence of circumstances, now might be it.