As President Donald Trump surveys aides and guests at his resort at Mar-a-Lago about what to do about gun control in the wake of another school shooting, one voice close to him is advising that he not give in to those calling for stricter measures.
Donald Trump Jr., the president’s eldest son, has been assuring his dad that the right move was to stay strong on gun rights and draw a hard line on the issue that helped propel him in the 2016 election. He is among the host of people talking to the president in the wake of the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, which resulted in the death of 17 people. But the fact that he is family makes his access more personal and his guidance more trusted.
For those hoping to turn the latest national tragedy into a robust legislative response on guns, this isn’t a good thing. While some friends have urged Trump to adopt a more balanced approach, or even for the revival of an assault-weapons ban, Trump Jr. has argued that there was no time for even a hint of reversion to the more restrictive views on guns that Trump espoused years before he became leader of the Republican Party.
According to three sources with knowledge of their conversations, the president and Trump Jr. repeatedly discussed gun control over the long Presidents’ Day weekend, often as they both closely watched a TV airing footage in real-time of young Parkland students savaging the president for his inaction.
When polled on his opinions on the matter, the first son emphatically replied that the president must not waver on his pro-gun stance, whatever the impassioned calls for reform. Trump Jr., according to these sources, reminded his father that inching toward gun control would be immediately taken by his conservative base—as well as major donors and motivated activist networks, including the National Rifle Association—as an unforgivable betrayal.
Eric Trump, his middle son, readily agreed.
But not everyone at Mar-a-Lago on Saturday nodded along. That evening, President Trump and his two sons had dinner with Fox News personality Geraldo Rivera, who is pushing Trump to support, as Rivera calls it, a new “Juvenile Assault Weapons Ban” as a “compromise all can live with,” and as “a start” to fixing the problem.
Trump Jr. and Eric Trump did not respond to requests for comment on this story.
But those close to President Trump, in and outside of the administration, generally view it as unlikely that he will have another meaningful change of heart on gun control, instead opting to throw the spotlight on mental health and “school safety.” Late last year, after Las Vegas suffered the single largest mass shooting in modern American history, Trump stayed on message in the initial aftermath, and (only surprising because of his penchant for careening off-message in times of crisis) managed to stick to it.
“I don’t think it’s even about guns for him,” a senior Trump administration official told The Daily Beast at the time, regarding Trump’s symbiosis with the gun lobby. “[The] NRA put unprecedented support behind him… and that’s the kind of thing he remembers.”
Trump Jr., a gun-rights advocate and hunting enthusiast, had previously stated he would not get directly involved in his dad’s administration. However, that doesn’t mean he doesn’t wield influence. The Trump son has for years acted as a conduit for pro-gun activists looking to influence or support his father’s political agenda. Early on in the Trump era, he was slated to play a critical role with the president’s advisory group on guns, and had previously been a prominent ally of business interests pushing gun-silencer legislation on Capitol Hill. And this weekend, he reasserted himself in his position as one of President Trump’s unofficial counselors on weaponry and gun culture.
But on Monday, the White House at least gave the appearance of a softening of tone, if not on actual policy or substance, on the matter.
“The president spoke to Senator [John] Cornyn on Friday about the bipartisan bill he and Sen. [Chris] Murphy introduced to improve Federal Compliance with Criminal Background Check Legislation,” press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders wrote in a statement sent out on Monday morning. “While discussions are ongoing and revisions are being considered, the president is supportive of efforts to improve the federal background check system.”
It’s a carefully worded statement that shows the Trump administration not committing to anything, as “discussions” and changes continue for an indefinite period of time. Sen. Murphy, a Democrat, himself tweeted Monday that the bill by itself is hardly an “adequate response” to the mass shooting in Parkland.
In the meantime, the White House plans to hold a “listening session” with Trump on Wednesday, and announced that it would include teachers and students from Florida. Two days out from the scheduled event, the White House still won’t confirm whether or not this session will even include students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
“We’ll be sending more info later on to all,” White House principal deputy press secretary Raj Shah simply told The Daily Beast on Monday, when asked if students or survivors from that high school would participate.
Students and parents of the victims told The Daily Beast last week they do not want anything to do with President Trump, and hope he stays far away from their grieving community. Trump did visit a nearby hospital on Friday that was treating wounded students, but dedicated most of his excursion to holding a smiling praise-fest with law enforcement, first responders, and staff before heading back to Mar-a-Lago.
Students and their family who wished the president would come to them said they only wanted him to visit so they could give him a piece of their mind.
“If Donald Trump wants to listen to us, he should have taken the first invitation [to come to a town hall],” survivor Alex Wind told CNN on Monday. “We are not going to come to him. He is going to need to come to us.” (On Wednesday, CNN is hosting a town-hall event that is set to feature Parkland survivors. Trump had turned down an invitation to participate.)
Emma Gonzalez, another survivor, argued that Trump’s planned “listening session” was just another way for the president to avoid enraged students. “He’s scared of us and… he doesn’t want to have to face us,” she said.