President Donald Trump met with the National Rifle Association on Thursday. If you were expecting the meeting to bring any clarity to what the president would like to do on guns, get ready for disappointment: More than two weeks after the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Florida renewed America’s gun debate, we still have essentially no idea what Trump wants.
Shortly after the shooting, Trump avoided any talk about gun control measures — failing to mention gun laws at all in his speech and instead focusing on vague proclamations about “mental health.” But as survivors of the Florida shooting continued to speak up and draw media attention, Trump began to publicly shift.
So at the start of this week, Trump supported very mild measures — banning bump stocks, slightly improving reporting to the background check system, and raising the legal age for buying assault weapons — although his focus was mostly on arming at least some teachers to protect students.
Then at a Wednesday meeting with lawmakers, Trump veered onto ground that even Democrats don’t typically wander into, calling for expanded background checks, suggesting that some people should have their guns seized without any due process, criticizing a Republican legislator for fearing the NRA, and even entertaining a full assault weapons ban.
“I like taking the guns early,” Trump said. “Take the guns first, go through due process second.”
The remarks prompted swift backlash from conservative lawmakers and the NRA, which has long opposed just about any gun control measures.
The NRA is pushing back
With a couple of tweets, everything is up in the air again. On Thursday night, the top lobbyist for the NRA tweeted that he’d had a “great meeting” with Trump and Vice President Mike Pence, adding that the president and vice president “support the Second Amendment, support strong due process and don’t want gun control.” Trump followed up that tweet with his own: “Good (Great) meeting in the Oval Office tonight with the NRA!”
The White House wouldn’t elaborate to the press about how the meeting went, but it’s a sign that Trump’s position has once again shifted in this debate — at the very least, the tweets suggest that Trump is backing down from what he said at the Wednesday meeting. (It’s also telling that Pence, a more experienced politician who has dealt with the NRA for decades, apparently had to be there after Trump’s off-script comments on Wednesday.)
That’s not too surprising. On the campaign trail, Trump called out Hillary Clinton for saying he supports arming teachers, tweeting, “Crooked Hillary said that I want guns brought into the school classroom. Wrong!” Recently, of course, arming teachers has been at the center of Trump’s proposals for school shootings. It’s a total reversal.
The issue here seems to be that Trump doesn’t really have any strong opinions on this issue, so he changes depending on his whims and his audience. This is something that past reports of the Trump presidential campaign emphasized, with the Washington Post reporting in 2016 that “Trump tends to echo the words of whomever last spoke to him, making direct access to him even more valuable, the people said, requesting anonymity to talk about internal campaign discussions.”
The gun control performance on Wednesday was reminiscent of a similar televised discussion with lawmakers about immigration in January during which the president appeared to back bipartisan legislation to help young immigrants brought to the country illegally as children — only to reverse himself and push a hard-line approach that helped scuttle consensus in the Senate.
During a serious policy debate, this is obviously a problem — especially with reports that Congress is looking to Trump for guidance on guns. If even the simplest policy positions are constantly in flux, it’s going to be impossible to come to any legislative agreement.
And with that, it’s all the more likely that yet another round of this debate on guns will lead to no action. Perhaps that’s what Trump and the NRA wanted all along.
For more on America’s gun problem, read Vox’s explainer.