WASHINGTON — Days after a pair of deadly mass shootings in Texas and Ohio, President Donald Trump said he was prepared to endorse what he described as “very meaningful background checks” that would be possible because of his “greater influence now over the Senate and over the House.”
But after discussions with gun-rights advocates during his two-week working vacation in Bedminster, New Jersey — including talks with Wayne LaPierre, chief executive of the National Rifle Association — Trump’s resolve appears to have substantially softened, and he has reverted to reiterating the conservative positions on the gun issue he has espoused since the 2016 campaign.
Speaking to reporters Sunday as he departed from New Jersey and returned to Washington, Trump said he was “very, very concerned with the Second Amendment, more so than most presidents would be” and added that “people don’t realize we have very strong background checks right now.”
He also echoed the standard response to mass shootings delivered by the NRA, which since 1966 has pushed the government to focus on the mental problems of the gunmen rather than how they were able to obtain their guns. “I don’t want people to forget that this is a mental health problem,” Trump said. “I don’t want them to forget that, because it is. It’s a mental health problem.”
At a rally in Manchester, New Hampshire, last week, he noted that “it is not the gun that pulls the trigger; it is the person holding the gun,” paraphrasing a decades-old bumper sticker slogan from the gun rights group.
Trump’s turnaround is the latest example of the president ultimately capitulating to the views of his populist white and working-class political base, and it came after NRA officials flooded the White House, Congress and governors’ offices around the country with phone calls since the back-to-back mass shootings Aug. 3 and 4.
White House officials insisted that Trump would shift back again toward supporting more aggressive legislation in the fall, when lawmakers return from their August recess. But they also said Trump had sounded less aggressive in private over the past week in discussions about possible gun legislation, a change that coincided with the NRA mounting a full-court press.
For now, Trump’s response to the most recent mass shootings, which together resulted in the deaths of 31 people, has followed a pattern similar to the one that played out after the February 2018 mass shooting in Parkland, Florida, where 17 students and staff members were killed at a high school.
After the shooting, Trump expressed support for universal background checks, keeping guns away from mentally ill people and restricting gun sales for some young adults. But that support quickly evaporated after a late-night Oval Office meeting with NRA officials. Trump later threatened to veto a background check bill.
“We’ve seen this movie before,” Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic leader, said in a statement. “President Trump, feeling public pressure in the immediate aftermath of a horrible shooting, talks about doing something meaningful to address gun violence, but inevitably, he backtracks in response to pressure from the NRA and the hard right.”
Schumer reiterated that the way forward is for the Senate to vote on a bipartisan universal background checks bill already passed by the House.
“I pray that the president will listen to the 90% of the American people who support universal background checks,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said in her own statement.
A White House spokesman declined to comment on the record but said Trump’s latest comments did not constitute a reversal of anything he had said before.
Some aides to Trump claimed that his comments Sunday did not signify a change of position and that he was simply engaging in a public negotiation with Schumer and Pelosi, to get them to back off their support for a universal background check bill and compromise.
But Trump has not spoken to Pelosi or Schumer since Aug. 8, their aides said, when he told them that he “understood” their interest in moving quickly to pass a universal background check law in the Senate. And his Capitol Hill allies have told Trump directly that he will need to push hard if he wants to see something done and that a bipartisan move would require him to engage in extensive arm-twisting of fellow Republicans, the type of legislative politicking he has had a mixed record of success with and interest in during his presidency.
One top Republican aide said that unless the president gave lawmakers cover on background checks, it was not clear what could be accomplished.
Democrats, who have watched Trump play to his base in recent months, with his frequent attacks on four Democratic congresswomen of color, as well as on Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, a Democrat from Baltimore, said spearheading any significant action on gun legislation now would seem to run counter to his reelection playbook.
Some gun-control advocates hoped the calculus would be different for Republicans on Capitol Hill.
“If I were a Republican senator up in 2020, I’d be asking myself three things,” said John Feinblatt, president of Everytown for Gun Safety, a national group that advocates tougher gun laws. “How many women are in my state who expect me to be voting on gun safety, how many young people are expecting me to do something to protect them, and how bad the dumpster fire is over at NRA headquarters.”
Feinblatt also noted that he had never seen the NRA, which is under investigation by attorneys general in New York and Washington, D.C., and mired in legal battles and internal riffs, seem “weaker.” He said Republicans were “looking at the polls and certainly looking at the suburbs and balancing that against whether the NRA has any muscle left.”
In private, Trump has echoed Feinblatt’s bleak assessment of the NRA. But aides have warned him that its members are among his voters, and they may be less attuned to the internal drama at the organization than to its mission statement.
Officials at the gun-rights group have been looking to show it still has muscle amid a series of stories about its finances and management, and responding to Trump has given them an opportunity to do that.
Officials at the organization would not directly comment on discussions with the president or his staff. But Andrew Arulanandam, a spokesman for the group, said, “If anyone looks at it from a very logical standpoint, they’ll realize that the sound bite remedy being offered by many just won’t work.”
He said that what was required was “enforcement of laws” and shoring up “our mental health system.”
Behind the scenes, Ivanka Trump, the president’s elder daughter and senior adviser, has been talking to lawmakers like Sen. Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., helping out a depleted White House legislative affairs team that has recently had major departures.
Ivanka Trump favors passing legislation on background checks, but her involvement on the issue is not welcomed by most Republicans, who privately say the perception of her as a liberal voice in the president’s circle will not help them sell more aggressive measures in their states. Ivanka Trump and her husband, Jared Kushner, departed Bedminster last Thursday, leaving Trump without one of the voices in his inner circle pushing him on the issue.
Instead, Trump spoke with gun rights advocates, who flagged for him a weekend shooting in Philadelphia that wounded six police officers as an example of an incident that they said tougher gun measures would not have prevented. The shooting, they said, had more to do with the mental health of the assailant.
At Bedminster, Trump also spent time with Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who has been pushing for “red flag” laws, which allow guns to be taken from individuals who may be a danger to themselves or others. But such laws are seen by gun-control advocates as relatively insignificant measures.