In the days since the 17 students and educators were killed in Parkland, Florida, President Donald Trump has surveyed virtually everyone in his orbit about what should be done to stem the epidemic of mass shootings in America.
Family members urged caution.
Close friends made the case to act boldly.
Advisers reminded him of the political risks while lawmakers on the Hill outlined a variety of legislative proposals.
On Wednesday, Trump took his prolonged listening tour public. He convened a room full of survivors and family of school-shooting victims to, ostensibly, talk about how to protect students from the next massacre. And he kept the cameras rolling.
It was riveting television. But, alas, it was largely pre-scripted for the president. By that point, Trump had already developed his preferred prescription: He would largely toe the gun lobby line, albeit in a kinder, gentler tone.
Speaking before the gathering of the heartbroken and enraged, Trump called for a vague strengthening of the background-check system to purchase guns. He proposed beefing up mental-health services. But his most audacious proposal was to arm and train teachers to fire back at the next gun-toting intruder.
“If you had a teacher with, who was adept at firearms, they could very well end the attack very quickly,” President Trump said. “And the good thing about a suggestion like that, and we’re going to be looking at it very strongly, I think a lot of people are going to be opposed to it, I think a lot of people are going to like it. But the good thing is you’ll have a lot of people with that.”
Not everything that Trump offered was something the National Rifle Association would find agreeable. He spoke favorably of raising the legal age, to 21, for those who want to purchase rifles—a position that Fox News personality Geraldo Rivera specifically pitched the president on during a dinner the two had at Trump’s club in Mar-a-Lago on Saturday. It’s a proposal the NRA has emphatically come out against.
“The president was deeply affected by his visit to the hospital and conversations with the survivors of the Parkland massacre. The savagery of the wounds inflicted by the AR-15 shocked and distressed him,” Rivera said in an email to The Daily Beast. “At our dinner at Mar-a-Lago I presented the Juvenile Assault Weapons Ban idea. He took it under advisement and further suggested strongly that he was going to act to strengthen background checks.”
(The “Juvenile Assault Weapons Ban” is not the name of legislation in Congress, but merely Rivera’s own branding.)
But the call for arming teachers was a page out of the gun lobby’s playbook. And the rest of Trump’s policies—including the vague pledge to strengthen background checks and an earlier executive memorandum to outlaw devices that allow semiautomatic weapons to fire like fully automatics—were the type of glossed-up proposals that the NRA has suggested itself in the wake of previous shootings.
For Trump, it was another step in a journey on gun policy that has been all over the map. As a business tycoon in metropolitan New York, he had long been a public supporter of stricter laws and measures, including an assault-weapons ban. But as he dipped further into Republican politics, he dropped that posture in favor of a more gun-friendly one. The NRA rewarded him for that with a prominent endorsement and millions of dollars in election help.
But like all things Trump, it’s proven hard to fully grasp where he comes down on actual issues. The very policy that he proposed on Wednesday—arming teachers—is one he denied nearly two years prior. “Crooked Hillary said that I want guns brought into the school classroom. Wrong!” he had tweeted in May 2016.
That might be because of the myriad of voices in his ear. While Geraldo pitched Trump on the need to raise the age at which people can purchase a rifle, the president’s adult sons, Donald Trump Jr. and Eric Trump, encouraged him over Presidents Day weekend that embracing gun control would be immediately interpreted by his conservative base—as well as major donors and motivated activist networks—as the ultimate betrayal.
Perhaps for this reason, over the past week, Trump has privately presented himself as noncommittal to policy prescriptions, open to further “discussion” and “solutions,” and seeking advice and answers from those in close proximity. White House officials and Trump confidants described to The Daily Beast a president who was determined to do something in the face of the Parkland atrocity, and to not be seen as a feckless leader during a period of heightened anger and passion over the gun debate.
According to a source close to the president, he wants to be seen as someone who could “help prevent more dead bodies [of children] from piling up,” and that Trump has closely tracked cable-news coverage of the pleas from students and survivors. Much of what those students have had to say has been incredibly rough on President Trump and his pro-gun allies.
And yet, senior Trump aides uniformly expressed incredulity that he will have a volte-face on gun control this time around, given his recent track record. Late last year, after Las Vegas suffered the single largest mass shooting in modern American history, Trump stayed on message in the initial aftermath, and managed to stick to it.
“I don’t think it’s even about guns for him,” a senior Trump administration official told The Daily Beast at the time, regarding Trump’s symbiosis with the gun lobby. “[The] NRA put unprecedented support behind him… and that’s the kind of thing he remembers.”
The morning after the listening session, Trump tweeted a public defense of the NRA.