As Congress returned to Washington this week, Democrats on Capitol Hill made it clear that pushing for gun control legislation will be their top priority. But first, they’ll need to sway President Trump, and that means dealing with a little-known staffer who’s playing a role on the issue inside the White House: Michael B. Williams.
Williams is still pretty new on the job, but he does have experience shaping gun legislation — as a lawyer in the gun industry.
A deputy assistant to the president, Williams has been one of the White House’s main points of contact on gun control in recent weeks, sources on Capitol Hill and in the White House told VICE News. Before working for Trump, Williams spent almost two years as the top lawyer for the American Suppressor Association, which represents silencer manufacturers and dealers. Before that, in 2013, he worked as a law clerk for the National Rifle Association's Institute for Legislative Action.
The American Suppressor Association lobbies against regulations on silencers, like the one legally owned and then used in the attack on a Virginia Beach municipal building that killed 12. The association describes itself as “the boots on the ground in the fight to legalize and deregulate suppressors, and are the front line defense against the anti-suppressor factions that want them banned.” Suppressors are banned in eight states, and are regulated by the National Firearms Act.
“Those opposed to suppressors have no valid reason on which to base their opposition,” Williams told Guns.com in 2016, in response to a research paper that described silencers as a public-safety threat. “This paper speaks only in generalities and seeks to accomplish nothing more than perpetuate the myth that suppressors are scary.”
In fact, Williams said, “suppressors are the hearing protection of the 21st century sportsman.”
Williams still has ties to the industry: His brother, Knox Williams, is the executive director and president of the American Suppressor Association. In an interview, Knox Williams confirmed that Michael Williams used to work for the group. The two brothers are in “close” contact about gun issues, Knox Williams said. He said his brother “wore many hats” at the trade group, including drafting state and federal legislation.
Michael Williams left the silencer trade group to join the Trump campaign in September 2016, according to his LinkedIn profile. He started at the White House in January 2017, in the Office of Management and Budget, reporting to the department’s director and White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney. In April of this year, the White House named Williams a deputy assistant to Trump and counselor to Mulvaney. Williams did not return repeated requests for comment.
There are several people inside the White House helping Trump navigate the politically thorny issue of gun control. Williams, a White House official said, is coordinating between Mulvnaney’s office and other invested parts of the White House, like legislative affairs and domestic policy offices. His role has been behind-the-scenes, but he’s present for meetings on the topic, according to one source. He “knows how to navigate” the issue, another White House official told VICE News.
“He’s the right person for the job,” Knox Williams said in a phone call, praising his brother’s “firm grasp of the issues. I don’t think there could be any better advisor on this topic.”
He’s playing this role at a crucial moment in the fight over federal gun regulation — and offers a window into how the revolving door between industry and government can influence Washington policymaking.
Back-to-back mass shootings, in El Paso and Dayton, left 32 people dead during Congress’s August recess, putting pressure on Trump and the GOP to consider expanding background checks or other gun-control measures when Congress returned this week.
After the El Paso shooting, Trump said he would consider stronger background checks. But after a call from the NRA, he retreated. And despite ongoing pressure from Democrats, and bipartisan support for stronger background checks, Trump appears unlikely to budge.
A White House official told VICE News that Trump is considering a few proposals that he says are designed to decrease gun violence: more mental health facilities and hospitals; capital punishment for mass shooters; and so-called “red flag laws,” which make it easier to get guns out of the hands of people more likely to commit violence.
Cover: A stock picture of The White House in Washington, USA. Picture date: Thursday March 16, 2017. Photo credit: Niall Carson/PA Wire URN:30592952 (Press Association via AP Images)