The cheers were the most electric of the night and, in Trump’s view, a searing reminder of the perils of crossing his base — especially on the issue of guns. The president was taken by the crowd’s overwhelming response and has been recounting it to advisers as they weigh possible policy prescriptions to address the epidemic of mass shootings, according to people familiar with the discussions who spoke on the condition of anonymity to reveal private deliberations.
With the gun debate taking center stage in Washington as Congress reconvenes this week, lawmakers in both parties are looking to the president for signals on what legislation — if any — might be possible. Yet many who hope for stricter gun laws fret that Trump, despite at times advocating tougher restrictions, will ultimately be reluctant to break with gun rights supporters, especially as he heads into his 2020 reelection campaign.
Trump campaigned for president as a dealmaker with few ideological convictions and a promise to reach across the aisle and summon bold results. Instead, on a host of issues including guns, immigration and the trade war with China, Trump has hewed closely to the expectations of MAGA nation — the millions of high-intensity, hard-right supporters who helped lift him to victory.
“The base is in the calculus, but it’s not calculus in the traditional sense that you’d think,” said Hogan Gidley, a deputy White House press secretary. “His base likes what he’s doing, and they trust him to advocate on their behalf, and that includes working to ensure mentally ill people don’t get guns and at the same time protecting the rights of law-abiding citizens to keep and bear arms.”
Kellyanne Conway, counselor to the president and Trump’s 2016 campaign manager, argued that Trump has both advanced conventional conservatism, such as by cutting taxes and opposing abortion, and bucked it, such as by supporting same-sex marriage.
“It is impossible to define the so-called ‘Trump base’ in conventional political terms,” Conway said. “He won millions of Obama voters and other disaffected Democrats. He appealed to Americans as the ‘forgotten man’ and the ‘forgotten woman,’ not as the red team and the blue team. He tackled concerns others had ignored, like China, the drug crisis and imbalanced trade deals. This will help to secure and expand his base of support.”
Rep. Veronica Escobar, a Democrat whose congressional district includes El Paso, where one of the recent mass shootings occurred, said she was disappointed that, in her view, Trump seems poised to make little meaningful progress on gun-control measures.
“My only theory is that he knows that if some of the core issues that are important to his base get eroded, that that could cost him those key votes that helped him win the electoral college, because he lost the popular vote,” she said.
Escobar added that while Trump’s base is “pretty solid,” there are nonetheless “some things for his base that would be unforgivable” — including serious restrictions on guns and “if he doesn’t stop brown people from Central America from coming into the country.”
Some of Trump’s political advisers think that a pursuit of gun control by the president would represent a serious breach with gun rights supporters in his base.
“His base is loyal to him and won’t vote against him, but there could be some dealbreakers that cause them to stay home altogether,” said a senior administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to offer a candid political assessment.
Trump, a Queens-born Manhattan real estate developer, has not always approached the issue of guns as he does now. In his 2000 book “The America We Deserve,” Trump staked out his own middle ground. “I generally oppose gun control, but I support a ban on assault weapons and I also support a slightly longer waiting period to purchase a gun,” he wrote.
Since launching his run for the presidency in 2015, however, Trump has adopted the current Republican hard-line position on guns. Some current and former White House aides said that though Trump may not approach the topic with deeply held convictions, he has come to appreciate the cultural significance to his supporters of protecting gun rights and, therefore, is reluctant to take any action that might alienate those voters.
“He feels a little insecure about them, because he’s not one of them,” said a conservative operative in frequent touch with the White House.
Recent polling data provided to the White House also found that gun-control measures could be problematic for Trump with the core supporters he needs to activate to secure a second term, according to someone familiar with the data. The New York Times first reported the existence of the polling data.
Other polling paints a more complicated picture. Americans across party and demographic lines overwhelmingly support expanded background checks for gun buyers and allowing law enforcement to temporarily seize weapons from troubled individuals, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll released this week. More Americans also say they trust congressional Democrats over Trump to handle the nation’s gun laws, 51 percent to 36 percent, with independents siding with Democrats by a 17-point margin, the poll showed.
Trump may yet help push through gun legislation as Congress resumes business after its summer recess. The White House and lawmakers are still discussing a range of options, and aides on both sides privately express cautious optimism for some sort of deal.
Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) — whose previous failed bipartisan background checks legislation with Sen. Patrick J. Toomey (R-Pa.) is one template for potential compromise — has counseled Trump that he has the clout as president to take action without paying a political price with his supporters, a Manchin aide said.
Manchin pointed out to Trump that his base did not desert him after his administration late last year imposed a ban on bump stocks, devices that allow semiautomatic rifles to fire at a faster rate, the aide said. Manchin also told the president that he has been able to defend his support for background checks to his constituents in West Virginia, where Trump won nearly 68 percent of the vote in 2016.
Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) also has been talking to Trump about a policy response to this summer’s mass shootings, detailing for the president how he navigated the political terrain as Florida governor after the 2018 Parkland school shooting, a spokesman said. Scott convened discussions among educators, law enforcement officials and mental-health professionals, and signed new state legislation including a “red flag” law.
“What he’s told the president and Senate leadership is to look at Florida as an example,” Scott spokesman Chris Hartline said.
White House officials rejected the notion that Trump is making decisions because he’s worried about his base.
“There’s definitely a political calculus that exists, but as the president has said, it’s not about what helps him politically,” Gidley said. “It’s a political calculus in the sense of what actually can pass getting bipartisan support and what actually works to prevent these shootings.”
Outsiders, however, are deeply skeptical that electoral calculations are not at play. Mayor Nan Whaley of Dayton, Ohio, a Democrat whose city suffered a mass shooting in August, said she thinks it’s “all a political maneuver” for Trump.
“He is in a pickle come 2020 around his base,” Whaley said. “He has to keep them engaged and the intensity hot, and if he walks from them on an issue, he’s worried they’ll walk from him and intensity will leave him.”
One Republican Senate aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to candidly assess the president, said that on an issue such as guns, the president simply “doesn’t care enough” to engage in the legislative arm-twisting required to broker a deal.
Trump has long had difficulty navigating racial and cultural dynamics, and he drew criticism for declining to forcefully condemn white supremacy and other forms of bigotry.
In July, when the crowd at a North Carolina campaign rally began chanting “Send her back,” echoing Trump’s racist tweets about Somali-born Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), the president stood silently at center stage to take it in. He did not condemn his supporters.
The next day, at the White House, Trump sought to distance himself from the chanters. “I wasn’t happy with that message that they gave,” he told reporters. “It was quite a chant, and I felt a little bit badly about it.”
Then Trump seemed to change course again by commending his chanting rallygoers as “incredible patriots.”
On some issues, such as immigration and his trade war with China, Trump has long-held personal beliefs that predate his presidential candidacy. But even in those areas, Trump occasionally vacillates and shuffles toward the center before returning to the siren calls of his hard-right base.
During his first year in office, Trump and Democratic leaders in Congress seemed to have reached a broad deal on immigration, which would have included protections for young undocumented immigrants known as dreamers. But amid outcry from conservatives and conservative pundits, Trump scrapped any prospects of major immigration compromise and retreated behind his “Build the wall!” campaign mantra.
For Trump’s base, the trade war with China, meanwhile, is less about his policies than about the president’s combative posture and implicit promise to stand up to those he has accused of taking advantage of Americans for decades, the president’s advisers say.
At moments when Trump has wavered on China, Vice President Pence and then-national security adviser John Bolton both prodded the president back to a more forceful position by reminding him, in part, that this is what his base wants, someone familiar with the discussions said.
Current and former aides have described Trump’s approach to an array of issues as a form of stress-testing — throwing out ideas to gauge reaction, not only from his base but also in the media and from his kitchen cabinet of advisers.
Cliff Sims, a former White House official, has a phrase for it: “Strong opinions, weakly held.”
“He has strong opinions on almost anything under the sun, and he’s not afraid to share them with anybody, but the only two issues he has deeply held beliefs are immigration and trade,” Sims said. “Everything else he’s willing to be convinced that he should change his position if shown compelling evidence. And isn’t that what we should want from our leaders?”