Donald Trump, an unpredictable president known for careening off-message during times of crisis, stuck largely to script in the wake of the single largest mass shooting in American history. And aides and confidants said on Monday that people shouldn’t expect more.
In the hours after the shooting, Trump read dispassionately from a teleprompter, and—most important to many of his die-hard fans and some of his closest advisers—did not flip-flop back to his past, more restrictive position on firearms.
He is a president who, multiple White House officials tell The Daily Beast, has no intention of wavering from his campaign-trail position that more armed Americans means a safer America; that a good guy with a gun is the best remedy for a bad guy with one.
“It’s gonna be about law and order and not gun control,” said Sam Nunberg, a former Trump adviser who served on his presidential campaign before being fired. “You have to put this in context. In 1999, when he was thinking about running for the Reform Party, he wrote a book supporting gun control. We are talking 17 years later. Trust me, he is not changing.”
Two senior White House officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to speak freely, told The Daily Beast that there was so far nothing to suggest that President Trump would do anything more than lean into his current Second Amendment-boosting stance and bluster. One official was admittedly surprised that the president managed to stay on-message for nearly 24 hours, and expressed astonishment that Trump did not start knee-jerk tweeting about “terrorism” pegged to the mass shooting, as he has before in other unconfirmed cases.
On Monday, instead, Trump was muted. The president and first lady Melania Trump led a moment of silence for the victims on White House grounds on Monday afternoon, and the president announced that he would head to Las Vegas to meet with families, first responders, and law enforcement on Wednesday, the day after his scheduled visit to Puerto Rico.
At the White House, talk of legislative action was eschewed, replaced by talking points that often echoed those used by gun rights groups in the wake of similar shootings. Press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders repeatedly stated that the immediate aftermath of the shooting in Las Vegas, which left 58 dead and more than 500 injured (numbers that are likely to rise), was not the “time and place for political debate.”
“The only person with blood on their hands is the shooter,” she told reporters on Monday afternoon, “and this is not the time to go after [other] individuals or organizations.”
Such a position has become the de facto stance for many Republican lawmakers in the wake of mass shootings. But Trump is not a traditional Republican politician. In the past, he has been supportive of gun control measures, writing in his 2000 book, The America We Deserve: “I generally oppose gun control, but I support the ban on assault weapons and I support a slightly longer waiting period to purchase a gun. With today’s Internet technology we should be able to tell within 72-hours if a potential gun owner has a record.”
But Trump also has an intense loyalty to groups and individuals who he believes propelled his campaign to victory. And among those at the top of the list are the National Rifle Association, whose endorsement he frequently cited on the trail last year.
“I don’t think it’s even about guns for him,” a senior Trump administration official told The Daily Beast of Trump’s symbiosis with the group. “NRA put unprecedented support behind him last year, and that’s the kind of thing he remembers.”
The NRA also happens to have critical allies inside the walls of 1600 Pennsylvania. Chief counsel Don McGahn represented the gun lobby group until last year in his capacity at law firm Jones Day. McGahn, a former Federal Election Commissioner, helped negotiate an FEC settlement over about $100,000 in illicit contributions to the group’s political arm.
Sean Cairncross, a deputy assistant to the president, also provided legal services to the NRA. Senior counselor Kellyanne Conway consulted for the group last year, her White House financial disclosure form shows. Conway also spoke at the NRA’s Women’s Leadership Forum this year.
Other Trump advisers and White House officials are more inclined to support gun control measures; including some who are close to the president. White House communications director Hope Hicks has spoken out in favor of legislative responses to previous mass shootings. On a since-deleted Twitter account, Hicks backed gun control efforts in the wake of the 2012 shooting at the Sandy Hook elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, just an hour’s drive from her native Greenwich.
Hicks did not respond to questions about the White House’s gun control posture in the wake of the Las Vegas shooting.
But on Capitol Hill, there was little hope among Democrats that Trump would revert back to his late ’90s policy prescriptions, even at a time when the president has expressed a growing appetite for working across the aisle on other policies.
“He has seen no indication that anything has changed,” Chris Harris, a spokesman for Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT) a leading gun control advocate, told The Daily Beast on Monday afternoon.
Indeed, the White House’s talking points after the Las Vegas shooting conveyed little appetite to move away from longstanding conservative views towards gun violence, including one particularly popular conservative shibboleth: the persistent gang violence in Chicago, and the supposed powerlessness of gun-control laws to stop the bloodletting.
“I think if you look to Chicago, where you had over 4,000 victims of gun-related crimes last year, they have the strictest gun laws in the country, that certainly hasn’t helped there,” Sanders said at Monday’s White House press briefing.
Asked why Trump previously thought it wise to comment on policy in the immediate aftermath of previous mass shootings, as he did after a 2016 shooting at an Orlando nightclub, Sanders responded: “There’s a difference between being a candidate and being the president.”