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Trump abandons proposing ideas to curb gun violence after saying he would following mass shootings

Over the past two months, Republicans have blamed no fewer than five things for inaction on gun legislation following the El Paso mass shooting. (Video: JM Rieger/The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

President Trump has abandoned the idea of releasing proposals to combat gun violence that his White House debated for months following mass shootings in August, according to White House officials and lawmakers, a reversal from the summer when the president insisted he would offer policies to curb firearm deaths.

Trump has been counseled by political advisers, including campaign manager Brad Parscale and acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, that gun legislation could splinter his political coalition, which he needs to stick together for his reelection bid, particularly amid an impeachment battle.

The president no longer asks about the issue, and aides from the Domestic Policy Council, once working on a plan with eight to 12 tenets, have moved on to other topics, according to aides who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the private deliberations.

Following public mass shootings, President Trump has called for expanding gun background checks. Then nothing happens. (Video: JM Rieger/The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Four White House officials said there haven’t been substantive discussions in weeks. And a person close to the National Rifle Association said discussions between the White House and the group have gone silent in a sign that the powerful gun lobby is no longer concerned the White House will act. Trump was pressed repeatedly by NRA President Wayne LaPierre this summer and early fall to not propose any gun-control measures.

“President Trump quietly moved gun control to the side and let it be replaced by breaking news,” said Dan Eberhart, a major GOP donor who said Trump is better off not advancing proposals at this time. “I suspect that was the plan all along.”

The White House’s position is a marked, if not wholly unexpected, change from when the president vowed he would make a push to pass more restrictive laws after two gunmen killed scores of people in Dayton, Ohio, and El Paso in early August, creating national outrage.

Trump repeatedly said he was a supporter of more aggressive background checks, would consider “red flag” laws that allow authorities to temporarily take weapons away from someone deemed a danger, and frequently mentioned the need to focus on mental health as it relates to gun violence.

He made a flurry of calls to lawmakers while crossing the country to visit victims and said he would be willing to go against the desires of the NRA.

In the face of skepticism that he would push hard for gun restrictions his party has long opposed, Trump insisted he was serious about the issue and would release proposals.

“We’re going to take a look at a lot of different things. And we’ll be reporting back in a fairly short period of time,” he told reporters on Sept. 11. “There are a lot of things under discussion. Some things will never happen, and some things can, really, very much — some very meaningful things can happen.”

Trump could always reverse course and embrace changes to gun laws, particularly if there is another shooting, but the president and his top aides are intensely focused on the impeachment inquiry and moving to aggressively shore up Republican support in the face of new revelations about his dealings with Ukraine that are central to House Democrats’ efforts to remove him from office. Administration officials are also weighing a new proposal about legal immigration to be released around the holidays, as well as a new round of tax cuts and pushing forward on a U.S., Canada and Mexico trade deal that administration officials have touted — issues they believe will appeal to GOP lawmakers and the president’s base of supporters.

On Thursday, White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham accused House Democrats of pursuing an “illegitimate impeachment proceeding” against Trump at the expense of policy priorities, including “reducing gun violence.”

House Democrats argue that they have already passed gun-control legislation and that it is up to Trump and the Republican-controlled Senate to act.

The latest on the impeachment inquiry into President Trump

Several senators working with Trump on gun proposals said they have not been involved in any recent talks. 

“I’ve even forgotten my own bill. One minute you’re working on red flag, the next you’re working on Syria, then you’re doing an impeachment resolution, then you’re going to get an award in Columbia. It’s like being a tornado. I hope we get back to it,” said Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), who was working on the issue with Trump.

A White House spokesman did not provide a comment for this story.

Democrats in the 2020 campaign have universally favored background checks and to ban assault weapons. Some have called for a gun buyback program. 

Former congressman Beto O’Rourke of Texas made gun control the central focus of his presidential campaign following the El Paso shooting, but he floundered in the polls and announced Friday he was dropping out of the race.

When asked in August about criticism that he would take people’s guns away, former vice president Joe Biden said, “Bingo! You’re right, if you have an assault weapon.” 

But it has not proved to be the dominant topic on the trail.

The waning of Trump’s interest in gun legislation began before the impeachment inquiry, as a fierce battle played out inside the West Wing.

In August, Domestic Policy Council staffers began to craft a plan that was set to be released in early September. There were meetings on a communications strategy for releasing the plan, according to a person who attended the sessions. 

Several Oval Office meetings occurred with Trump, who was repeatedly pushed by his daughter Ivanka Trump, according to her supporters and critics in the building.

She was joined in lobbying the president to do something, such as expanding background checks, by Attorney General William P. Barr. Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law, has largely stayed out of the issue, officials say.

Trump faced pressure from Mulvaney, the vice president’s office and conservative lawmakers to abandon making any proposals or to at least tread carefully in doing so.

Trump grew disenchanted with red-flag laws after hearing from Reps. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) and Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) and other conservatives that they could be used to take away guns from law-abiding citizens, according to White House officials. 

And Trump believed background checks — at the very minimum — needed another name, according to people who spoke with him. “He was worried about branding,” said a person who spoke with Trump on the phone about the matter. 

Trump was also shown polling that gun-control measures could depress turnout among his supporters in the 2020 election, according to a campaign official. 

Officials from the NRA made dozens of calls to White House aides, and Trump spoke with LaPierre at least six times, according to two senior White House officials.

Tensions among some in the White House and the moderate Democrats and Republicans with whom Trump was discussing gun legislation began to rise as talks stalled.

Michael Williams, a former gun lobbyist who now works for Mulvaney, had a loud argument with Sens. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) and Graham in one call, according to a person with knowledge of the conversation. Manchin and Graham believed Williams was seeking to tank any bill.

At one point, Graham complained about Mulvaney’s handling of the issue, according to people who heard the comment. 

Later, White House officials said they felt they could not take on gun control during impeachment. Asked if the president had ever been serious about the issue, one senior administration official said: “He could have been if the circumstances all played out just right.” 

Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) received a call from Ivanka Trump in September, according to officials familiar with the matter, who promised the administration would continue to work on gun control.

But Murphy has mostly lost hope, he said in a recent interview.

“I haven’t heard anything directly from the White House in weeks and would be surprised if something happens at this point,” he said. “They’ve got to be willing to break from the NRA if we are going to do anything real.” 

A person close to Manchin said he had not heard from the administration in more than a month. A Murphy aide said the senator had not had any discussions with the administration since Sept. 24. 

On Sept. 24, Trump told House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D) how much progress they had made on a gun-control proposal and that he was talking to Democrats, according to a person familiar with the call. Later that day, she announced an impeachment inquiry, and no conversations have occurred since, the official said. 

“He’s not going to take on things related to his base in the middle of all this,” said Chris Ruddy, a longtime ally, echoing the view that Trump will not do anything to antagonize his supporters while impeachment hangs over his head.