A combination of public and private pressure prompted President Trump to overturn his administration's recent move to allow elephants shot for sport in Zimbabwe and Zambia to be imported back to the United States as trophies, according to interviews with several individuals briefed on the decision.
Trump's announcement Friday that he was putting the decision "on hold" until he could personally review it marked animal welfare activists' first federal victory since the president took office in January, and came just hours after the White House press secretary had defended the idea of renewing the controversial trophy imports.
The administration faced blistering criticism on both the left and right after the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced Wednesday that it would end a 2014 government ban on big-game trophy hunting in Zimbabwe and Zambia.
Several conservative pundits and lawmakers questioned the decision, and this criticism didn't sit well with Trump, who himself has criticized big-game hunting on occasion.
A White House official, who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the matter on the record, said the president became uncomfortable with the decision as he learned more about it, and he decided to act.
"Put big game trophy decision on hold until such time as I review all conservation facts," Trump wrote Friday night on Twitter. "Under study for years. Will update soon with Secretary Zinke. Thank you!"
Trump's announcement came hours after press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders defended the trophy import authorization, saying it resulted from a review by "career officials" that began in 2014 under former president Barack Obama.
Career officials at Fish and Wildlife did make the decision to renew the imports, according to individuals briefed on the decision who asked for anonymity to discuss internal deliberations. But political appointees at Interior did press for resolution of the issue, which is a top priority for hunting industry allies of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke.
The negative backlash to the import decision, which was first announced by the Safari Club International Foundation during a conference with African wildlife managers in Tanzania last week, appeared to take the White House by surprise. A similar change affecting African lion trophies had gone mostly unnoticed since it took effect last month, and it is not clear whether Trump was aware of that earlier decision.
The shift in policy coincided with a military coup in Zimbabwe — President Robert Mugabe remains under house arrest — making the decision harder for the administration to defend.
Referring to the president's Friday tweet, the White House official said, "I think that does reflect his discomfort with it."
Wayne Pacelle, president of the Humane Society of the United States, spent part of Friday on Capitol Hill with Lara Trump, one of the president's daughters-in-law, meeting with GOP lawmakers to push for passage of several animal protection bills. In recent months she has met with White House officials as well as Cabinet members to press for action on fronts including connecting homeless pets with veterans, preventing wild horses and burros from being euthanized, and stricter enforcement of policies related to "puppy mill" operations.
"Lara has really established herself as a voice for animal welfare within the first family, and has been very active on a number of animal welfare and animal cruelty policies," Pacelle said in a phone interview Saturday. "Animal welfare transcends a lot of these traditional political boundaries. The president is seeing that, and it's part of his own family's biography, with Lara's interest."
Lara Trump visited the White House on Friday along with her husband, Eric, but it's unclear whether she spoke to the president or White House aides about the import decision.
Both of Trump's sons have engaged in big-game hunting, and photos of them posing in 2012 with the carcasses of species including an elephant and waterbuck have circulated widely on social media. In one image, Donald Trump Jr. is wearing an ammunition belt and holding the severed tail of an elephant in one hand, a knife in the other.
It's not clear where Trump's sons stood on the import debate and whether they spoke to their father about the issue. Before he was president, Trump distanced himself from the practice in a 2012 tweet, responding to a photo Cher had posted of their hunt by tweeting, "My sons love hunting. I don't."
But in 2015 he tweeted in favor of the idea of hunting elephants in Zimbabwe, suggesting they were "so abundant that they are devastating the National Forest."
Under U.S. law the remains of African elephants, which are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, can be imported only if federal officials have determined that hunting them benefits the species more broadly.
Richard Leakey, who chairs the board of the Kenya Wildlife Service and is an anthropology professor at Stony Brook University, said in an interview Saturday that the amount of money generated by a handful of trophy hunters pales in comparison with what wildlife-viewing tourism generates."It's basically their principal source of revenue, and has been for the last 30 years," Leakey said.
Kenya banned trophy hunting in 1977. Leakey said the several hundred million dollars generated annually by visits to the Maasai Mara National Reserve go directly to the Maasai government and pay for schools, hospitals and other needs in a community of 1.5 million people.
It is unclear who will conduct the review of the import decision, since Trump vowed on Twitter to do it himself, and whether lion trophy imports will also face fresh scrutiny.
The Interior Department declined to comment Saturday. Zinke indicated in a statement Friday that after speaking with Trump "the issuing of permits is put on hold as the decision is being reviewed."
Critics of the decision to allow elephant remains into the country from Zimbabwe and Zambia included not only House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Edward R. Royce (R-Calif.) but also Fox News host Laura Ingraham and conservative radio host Michael Savage, who tweeted Friday before the policy reversal, "DO BRAVE MEN HUNT ELEPHANTS? SHOULD TRUMP PREVENT THE IMPORTATION OF LION AND ELEPHANT TROPHIES? "
On Saturday morning, several GOP elected officials, including South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster, praised Trump. The president retweeted accolades from two conservative television hosts, Piers Morgan and Greta Van Susteren.
Van Susteren thanked him for the reversal, writing, "this is important to so many of us," while Morgan wrote "BOOM! Thank you, Mr President. Trophy-hunting is repellent," adding in a subsequent tweet, "For those who think Donald Trump is never capable of changing his mind or being persuaded by counter-argument."
Ashley Parker contributed to this report.