Trump Pledged To Take On The NRA; Now He's Speaking At Group's Annual Convention

May 4, 2018
Originally published on May 4, 2018 7:24 am

President Trump will speak at the National Rifle Association's annual convention on Friday, a little more than two months after he pledged to stand up to the gun rights organization in the aftermath of the Parkland, Fla., school shooting.

In the days after the shooting that killed 17 people, Trump called out lawmakers for being "afraid" of the NRA, saying the group had "less power" over him. He even publicly backed raising the minimum age to buy long guns and supported imposing more expansive background checks — positions strongly opposed by the NRA.

But when the White House actually announced its proposals to improve school safety, the approach was much more narrow and pretty much in line with NRA policy stances.

The mismatch between Trump's rhetoric on gun laws and the legislative actions he ultimately ended up backing fits a larger pattern for Trump. He has repeatedly floated ideas publicly, seemingly off the cuff, before pulling back to conform with more mainstream Republican principles.

"It often seems that Trump pivots to more traditional positions once longtime actors in the policy process are able to brief him about why Republicans hold positions at odds with the ones he just espoused," said Justin Vaughn, director of the Center for Idaho History and Politics at Boise State University.

Vaughn said the result is that Trump ends up falling in line with his base, but he may get fewer policy "wins."

The president was able to sign into law some measures that address deficiencies in the current national background check system, although those provisions fell short of calls for requiring background checks for all gun purchases.

Trump had similar moments on immigration. In January, during a televised bipartisan meeting with lawmakers, he expressed openness to backing a bill that would protect young immigrants from deportation without including funding for a wall on the southern border.

The White House wound up putting out a proposal that included a path to citizenship for those young immigrants in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program and $25 billion for a border wall.

Congress has yet to pass legislation addressing DACA.

By showing a willingness to take positions that buck his party's line without following through, Trump is able to play up his independence without dealing with the consequences of actually enacting policy.

"When he does tough talk like, 'I'm not afraid of the NRA' ... it says more about his persona, his image and his core supporters love that," said Robert Denton, head of the department of communication at Virginia Tech.

But there are some risks to vacillating between various viewpoints.

"These inconsistent policy positions leave allies and foes alike unsure where he stands and uncertain about him keeping his word after they leave the negotiating table," said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston.

The White House defended the president's decision to speak at the NRA, despite the intense criticism the group has faced since the Parkland shooting.

White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said at a briefing on Tuesday that safety is a priority for the Trump administration.

"But we also support the Second Amendment, and strongly support it, and don't see there to be a problem with speaking at the National Rifle Association's meeting," Sanders said.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Even going by the standards of this crazy news environment we are in, this has been quite an eventful week for President Trump.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Right. He shook up his legal team.

GREENE: Yeah. He admitted to reimbursing his lawyer Michael Cohen for $130,000 in hush money that was paid to an adult film star.

MARTIN: And today the president addresses the National Rifle Association.

GREENE: That conference is going on in Dallas, Texas. And there are 20 acres of displays of firearms and hunting accessories awaiting the president when he arrives to speak at lunchtime. Let's bring in NPR White House reporter Ayesha Rascoe, who is covering this.

Hi, Ayesha.

AYESHA RASCOE, BYLINE: Hi.

GREENE: So this is not a new thing. President Trump was at the NRA last year. But do we expect in this current environment and what we've seen with the anger, the activism after the shooting in Parkland, Fla., is his message going to be different somehow?

RASCOE: I'm not sure that his message will fundamentally be different. He may make some reference to the Parkland shooting and to the idea that we need to make sure maybe that guns do not get into the wrong hands. But ultimately, the NRA was an early backer of President Trump, and that's really stuck with him. And the White House has said that he's going to talk about support for the Second Amendment and for gun rights.

GREENE: Although at one point - I mean, his agenda has stuck close to the NRA. But there was a point when President Trump was calling out lawmakers for being afraid of the National Rifle Association, saying, quote, "they hold less power over me." So it's sort of hard to figure out exactly what his message is with this organization.

RASCOE: Well, after Parkland, he did seem like he wanted to do something big and felt like maybe he needed to shake up what had been going on to stop these mass shootings. And so he did come out and say that he supported age limits for buying long guns and - or raising age limits and also even flirted with universal background checks. But ultimately, the rhetoric was not matched up with policy. And so when they made their proposals, they were pretty much in line with what the NRA wanted.

GREENE: So one thing we're following today, there are going to be protesters outside this convention. And they seem to want to call attention to the NRA and its ties to Russia. Can you remind us about that?

RASCOE: Well, so the NRA has acknowledged that it accepts foreign donations. But it says it does not use them for election work. There have been some reports that the FBI is investigating whether a Russian banker with Kremlin ties illegally funneled money to the NRA to aid Donald Trump's campaign.

GREENE: Let me just ask you about some other White House news before I let you go. Stormy Daniels and the president's personal attorney Michael Cohen - there was that $130,000 hush payment in exchange for her silence about an alleged affair. The president's new lawyer - he goes on TV on Fox, Rudy Giuliani, says that Trump repaid Cohen, which seemed to throw the White House staff for a loop, it sounds like. So what exactly - where's the president on this right now?

RASCOE: Well - so the president followed up on Rudy Giuliani's kind of announcement or reveal by tweeting yesterday that, yes, he had reimbursed his attorney Michael Cohen. He had done it through these monthly retainer fees. He said that this arrangement or signing these nondisclosure agreements and making these payments are not unusual for rich and famous people. But it did catch the White House staff off guard. The White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders says she didn't learn that President Trump had reimbursed Michael Cohen for that payment until the Giuliani interview.

GREENE: Oh, she found out about it watching television (laughter)?

RASCOE: Yes (laughter).

GREENE: So it sounds like the big central question now is whether that payment violated campaign finance law in some ways. Is that right?

RASCOE: Yes. So that's the big question. And the question is, did they do this to influence the election? And if they did, then that can open up the idea that this was an illegal campaign contribution and also that maybe it wasn't properly reported.

GREENE: OK. White House reporter Ayesha Rascoe on a very busy day for us. We appreciate it. Thanks a lot.

RASCOE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.