National Security & Defense

Trump’s Sudden Love of Gun Control Isn’t That Sudden

President Trump meets with members of Congress at the White House, February 28, 2018. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

Hello, March. I guess we know it’s coming in like a lion. Making the click-through worthwhile: a volcanic rant about the president’s statements at the White House meeting with lawmakers on gun violence and some cheerful economic news to balance it out.

For at Least a Day, Trump Suddenly Decides He Loves Gun Control

My memories of the NRA Annual Meeting in Louisville, Ky., in May 2016 were mostly happy ones, and not merely because it was held in Bourbon Wonderland. But I do remember sitting with Charlie Cooke in a mix of mild surprise and bemusement as the organization enthusiastically endorsed Donald Trump, earlier than it had ever endorsed a presidential candidate before.

Sure, the NRA didn’t have much choice. The Democratic nominee was Hillary Clinton, a gun-control advocate who had declared in a private meeting that “the Supreme Court is wrong on the Second Amendment, and I am going to make that case time and time again,” and who was so shameless that she later claimed in a nationally televised debate that the D.C. handgun ban was aimed at keeping guns out of the hands of toddlers.

But Donald Trump, a Manhattan real-estate mogul who had traveled with his own personal security for years, had never really been a “gun guy.” He says he has a concealed carry permit (hard to get in New York state). In his 2000 book, The America We Deserve, he wrote, “I generally oppose gun control, but I support the ban on assault weapons and I also support a slightly longer waiting period to purchase a gun.”

The NRA traditionally declined to endorse candidates that supported policies like that, and the group rarely was credulous about conveniently timed changes in position. An endorsement that touted Trump as a longtime defender of the Second Amendment just wouldn’t be accurate. NRA officials Wayne LaPierre and Chris Cox did the best they could, speaking extensively about the menace that Hillary Clinton represented, and then touting Trump as . . . well, not Hillary.

“In a few minutes, you’ll be hearing from a man who offers a very different White House,” LaPierre said in his introduction to Trump.

Even in his remarks accepting the endorsement, Trump made comments that suggested he found owning a lot of guns . . . kind of worrisome. “My sons are members,” Trump declared. “They have so many rifles, so many guns, that even I get concerned. I say, ‘That’s a lot!’” The crowd greeted that admission with what can best be described as polite silence.

The rest is history. Just about every gun owner and Second Amendment advocate I know put aside concerns and jumped on the Trump train. Trump won, bringing cheer to gun owners and the NRA, and then he nominated Neil Gorsuch, elating them even more.

But Wednesday we learned that the Trump White House . . . might not be all that different from the Clinton White House on guns after all. During a meeting with Vice President Pence and senior senators . . .

  • Trump endorsed the Assault Weapons Ban.
  • Trump endorsed background checks for private sales at gun shows.
  • Trump endorsed raising the age to purchase firearms to 21.
  • Trump declared the top priority of the NRA since Trump’s election, concealed-carry reciprocity, “will never pass.” (This bill would ensure that if you have a valid concealed-carry permit in your home state, you are allowed to carry a concealed weapon in any state.)
  • Trump contended members of Congress were “petrified of the NRA” and that he was not. “They have great power over you people. They have less power over me.”

Finally, Trump contradicted his own vice president’s assurances about due process and basically contended that the government should seize firearms from people it deems dangerous and go back and get legal justification later.

“Take the firearms first, and then go to court,” Trump said. “Because that’s another system. Because a lot of times, by the time you go to court, it takes so long to go to court, to get the due-process procedures — I like taking the guns early. Like in this crazy man’s case that just took place in Florida, he had a lot of firearms. They saw everything — to go to court would have taken a long time. So you could do exactly what you’re saying, but take the guns first, go through due process second.”

This is the sort of comment that might have started armed standoffs with law enforcement had it been uttered by President Obama. Had a Democratic president proposed this — literally grabbing guns without legal cause! — the fury from the NRA would have been hotter than a thousand suns going supernova.

The organization’s issued statement yesterday was . . . milder.

“While today’s meeting made for great TV, the gun control policies discussed would make bad policy that wouldn’t keep our children safer,” said Jennifer Baker, a spokeswoman for the NRA’s lobbying arm. “We are going to continue to work to pass policies that might actually prevent another horrific tragedy.”

Keep in mind, Trump made clear at this meeting he simply doesn’t know much about the topic of gun laws at all.

During an exchange with Sens. Joe Manchin, a Democrat, and Pat Toomey, a Republican, Trump said he “hasn’t heard a lot about” the duo’s eponymous bill to strengthen background checks, which has been pushed for five years, garnering 54 votes in the Senate in 2013.

Trump at one point asked Toomey whether his proposal raised the age of gun purchases from 18 to 21. When Toomey said the bill didn’t, the President said, “Because you’re afraid of the NRA, right?”

The Toomey-Manchin bill was the biggest gun-control fight in the past ten years, and Toomey faced strong opposition from the NRA. The organization declined to endorse him for reelection in 2016 and downgraded his rating from an “A” to a “C.”

A lot of right-of-center people in my world love the idea of “outsider” lawmakers, who are unsullied by government experience. I keep hearing that “wonky” candidates are boring, because they keep talking about details that few people pay attention to or even care about.

I’d argue that Trump’s epic flip-flop is a demonstration of why conservatives are fools to turn over the power of government to any candidate who hasn’t been fighting the good fight for a long time, and who can’t demonstrate a grasp of key policy details. “Outsider” is turning into a euphemism for “a candidate who can’t be bothered to do his homework.”

Policy wonks don’t make these kinds of mistakes. Every time Trump gives a rambling, contradictory, vague answer on some important topic, his defenders jump up and insist, “Oh, he doesn’t get bogged down in the weeds, and that doesn’t really matter because his instincts are sound.” No, they’re not! Someone with sound instincts on the Second Amendment doesn’t go out and say the things that Trump said Wednesday.

And Trump’s defenders will twist themselves into pretzels, bending over backwards to figure out how they can excuse him and insist he didn’t really say what we just saw him say. You see comments like “Trump is taking advice from the swamp,” which inherently means that the guy they voted for to “drain the swamp” has not only drained it, he has chosen to listen to “the swamp” and is now enacting the agenda of “the swamp.”

At what point are the president’s supporters willing to hold him accountable for his own statements and actions? Even if you believe there’s some sinister Iago whispering in his ear, at what point will you stop excusing him for listening to Iago?

Let’s close by looking back at President Trump’s pledge the NRA annual meeting attendees in Atlanta last year: “You have a true friend and champion in the White House . . . I will never, ever let you down.”

Finally, Some Happy News . . .

Okay, this should cheer us up:

Hourly pay rose for every wage group last year — high, middle and low.

The biggest raises went to low-income workers.

And the pay gap between men and women shrank.

An annual report card on American pay has just come out this morning, and it is dominated by good news. Real wages (that is, after adjusting for inflation) not only grew last year, they tended to grow for demographic groups that are paid less.

The New York Times is quick to assure readers that President Trump doesn’t deserve credit, because the trend began in 2015.

Okay, but his administration’s policies didn’t louse it up, now did they?

Wait, there’s more good news!

The number of Americans filing for unemployment benefits unexpectedly fell last week, hitting the lowest level in more than 48 years, pointing to a rapidly tightening labor market.

Initial claims for state unemployment benefits dropped 10,000 to a seasonally adjusted 210,000 for the week ended Feb. 24, the lowest level since December 1969, the Labor Department said on Thursday. Claims for the prior week were revised to show 2,000 fewer applications received than previously reported.

ADDENDA: I’ll be at the White House summit on opioids today. Let me rephrase that, as I will not be on opioids at today’s White House summit; today I will be attending a White House summit discussing opioid addiction and recovery.