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 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 (DACA) 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.