During a meeting on gun-control policy this afternoon with congressional leaders, President Trump made several remarks that disturbed some on the right, especially Second Amendment supporters.
“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,” Trump said off the cuff. “Take the gun first, go through due process second.”
And later, Trump said of bump-stock devices, “I’m going to write that out.” The president noted that he could ban bump stocks with an executive order before adding, “You won’t have to worry about bump stocks.”
To be sure, these remarks are not evidence that Trump is a closet progressive. And he didn’t run for president as a Republican while secretly opposing the Second Amendment, waiting for the perfect moment to bring out his preferred, expansive gun-control policy. (Though he had opposed gun rights prior to his run for president.)
His remarks at this meeting were intensely revealing precisely because they showed once again that Trump is almost wholly devoid of core beliefs. In fact, this incident is one of the starkest examples we’ve seen of this fact so far during his presidency. What Trump says and does is nearly always some synthesis of whatever he thinks will enable him to achieve the end he wants at any given time. And that end seems rarely to be dictated by firm principles or even a consistent policy agenda.
This reality is a huge part of why many conservatives couldn’t buy into one of the most popular arguments Trump supporters made during the 2016 election. According to this line of thinking, Trump would be a vehicle for conservatism, enabling the GOP to advance its policy agenda without issue, regardless of what Trump the man might actually believe in his heart. Since Trump has been in office, proponents of this view have been able to point to conservative policy victories as evidence that they were correct.
And they were, at least in the sense that Trump would act as a vehicle, but they may have failed to fully consider the equally important question, “A vehicle for what?” The idea that Trump would be an acceptable, albeit imperfect vessel only works insofar as you know he will always remain a vessel for the things you want to accomplish. There was never much indication that Trump would always stick to the conservative side. Today is one of the most obvious examples of this.
The calculus by which Trump determines what he’ll be a vessel for on any given day still isn’t fully clear, and it certainly isn’t one by which he remains a vessel for conservative policy goals at all times. Judging from his pattern of past flip-flops, at least from the 2016 campaign onward, his stance on any given issue is determined by some combination of who happens to be around him at the time, what he’s been told by people he trusts, what he sees in the news (and the source from which that news comes), and who is most loyal to him or treats him as a powerful figure deserving of respect.
Senator Ben Sasse (R., Neb.) hinted at this in a statement after the meeting today. “Strong leaders don’t automatically agree with the last thing that was said to them,” Sasse said. “We have the Second Amendment and due process of law for a reason. We’re not ditching any Constitutional protections simply because the last person the President talked to today doesn’t like them.”
Something similar happened last September when Trump met with Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer and House minority leader Nancy Pelosi to discuss a bipartisan compromise on immigration reform. After the meeting, the Democratic leaders issued a statement saying the president had agreed to legislation formalizing the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program without obtaining funding for a border wall in return. And it’s easy to believe that’s exactly what the president said behind closed doors.
If Trump is already caving on gun control now — or, at least, for the moment — dare we imagine what he’ll do if he’s forced in the latter half of his term to work with a Democratic congress?