WASHINGTON –– Not even two weeks ago, Attorney General Bill Barr was on Capitol Hill, talking to Senate Republicans about expanding background checks for gun sales.
Over the course of two days, as Congress waited for a sign of how the Trump administration might act on gun reform, Barr briefed Republicans on a draft proposal to require background checks for all commercial gun sales. And though the White House insisted that the document wasn’t Trump-approved, Barr was joined on the Hill by the White House’s point man on guns, legislative affairs director Eric Ueland.
A month and a half after El Paso, it was a sign, however faint, that some kind of meaningful gun reform may be on the horizon.
Then came Ukraine.
Two days after Barr’s meetings, news broke that President Trump had asked Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky for a “favor”: to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden and his son, Hunter, over the latter’s work at a Ukrainian energy company.
In the days that followed, Politico reported, the senators working on bipartisan gun reform began to get radio silence from the White House about their plans. Then, on Tuesday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) announced a formal impeachment inquiry against Trump.
Now, the president is openly using impeachment as an excuse to bat away expectations that the White House will support gun-control legislation.
“She’s not interested in guns," he said Wednesday at the United Nations. "Nancy Pelosi is not interested in guns and gun protection [or] gun safety."
If Pelosi was interested in gun reform, Trump implied, she’d be focusing on legislative priorities instead of an impeachment inquiry. Never mind that, shortly before Trump spoke that afternoon, House Democrats held a hearing to debate banning assault weapons.
On Wednesday afternoon, during a press briefing at the UN, Trump turned to Democratic Connecticut Sen. Chris Murphy, “who I’ve been dealing with on guns.” Murphy’s now “too busy wasting time on the witch hunt” to legislate, Trump said.
On Thursday, Trump shouted on the tarmac of Andrews Air Force Base: “We can’t talk about gun regulation, we can’t talk about anything.”
And on Friday, National Rifle Association President Wayne LaPierre lobbied Trump in the Oval Office to “stop the games” over gun control legislation, the New York Times reported. They also discussed what kind of support the group could provide Trump as he faces impeachment.
‘Cannot die in vain’
Given his ties LaPierre, Trump not supporting gun control may seem unsurprising. But after back-to-back shootings last month in El Paso and Dayton, he opened the door to it.
“We cannot let those killed in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, die in vain. Likewise for those so seriously wounded,” he tweeted on August 5. “Republicans and Democrats must come together and get strong background checks.”
His tune changed after meetings with NRA members. By mid-September, sources close to the White House began to speculate that Trump had changed his mind on background checks. And Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ken.) made it clear that without Trump’s support, the Senate wouldn’t act.
Still, congress pressed on, and with public support building for new gun safety laws, there was palpable hope on the Hill that something might get done. Sens. Joe Manchin (D-West Virginia) and Pat Toomey (R-Penn.) were working on expanding background checks. Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) were drafting a bill to implement a federal “red flag law,” which would make it easier to take a gun away from someone considered dangerous.
“I was optimistic that maybe there was something we could do here,” Robin Lloyd, managing director of the non-profit Giffords group, told VICE News of the month-long period late this summer when lawmakers began drafting the bills with renewed vigor.
Would it have been a comprehensive gun reform package? ”Most likely not,” she said. “But I felt like maybe there was something that could happen on a bipartisan basis.”
Invoking the I-word
Even before Pelosi even formally announced the impeachment probe late Tuesday afternoon, Politico reported that some lawmakers, including Sens. Dick Durbin (D-Illinois) and Mike Braum (R-Indiana), believed the “ship may have sailed” on bipartisan gun reform.
And last week, a White House official told VICE News that the impeachment inquiry would stymie legislative momentum on gun reform. (The official wasn't authorized to speak publicly; a White House spokesman declined to comment).
But it may only be Trump himself who's ready to blame impeachment for inaction. A number of lawmakers on Capitol Hill said they were committed to keep going, regardless of the White House’s pessimism.
Graham told VICE News last week that he’d spoken with Blumenthal and Ivanka Trump, who has emerged as the White House’s emissary on gun reform.
"I think we’re really close on compromise on a grant program for protective orders, and we’re still working on background checks,” Graham said. “I’m still hopeful we can get there."
Asked whether the president made up his mind on supporting those efforts, Graham said “no.”
Sen. Joe Manchin, the West Virginia Democrat, has spoken extensively with Trump about gun reform and become Democrats’ de facto channel of communication with the White House on the issue. “We’ve been talking, very currently,” he told VICE News. “I’m always optimistic.”
“I heard someone saying that it was over, and it’s far from being over,” Manchin said. “I think it’s very much in the mix.”
“I’ve spoken to various top level representatives of the White House who have indicated to me a determination to press forward,” Blumenthal told VICE News. “They are expressing a continued interest. Whether they are speaking for the president remains to be seen.”
On whether there’s a timeline for Trump making that decision, Blumenthal said, “It has been and continues to be a moving target. We have no firm date.”
But “certainly,” he continued, “I’m willing to work as long and hard as possible to save as many lives as possible.”
“I am concerned about the impact of those unrelated events and proceedings,” Blumenthal said of the impeachment inquiry. “I support the impeachment investigation, but the president has a continuing responsibility as do we, to try to achieve gun violence prevention."
Advocates working on the issue say that their efforts are ongoing, too. If talks fail, they say, responsibility falls squarely on the president.
“Senate Republicans are taking their marching orders from the president, not the other way around,” the Giffords group’s Lloyd said. For Trump to blame any pause on Democrats, she said, “is a complete and utter smokescreen.”
Cover: President Donald Trump talks with reporters after arriving at Andrews Air Force Base, Thursday, Sept. 26, 2019, in Andrews Air Force Base, Md. Trump had spent the week attending the United Nations General Assembly in New York. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)