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Trump's public mention of background checks is vanishing

CNN logo CNN 8/16/2019 By Jeremy Diamond, CNN
Donald Trump wearing a suit and tie © Scott Olson/Getty Images

President Donald Trump couldn't stop talking about the importance of strengthening background checks as he addressed reporters last Friday after a week steeped in the aftermath of the country's latest pair of mass shootings.

He uttered the term "background checks" 18 times as he fielded questions from reporters about what kind of action he would take in the wake of the shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, that killed 31 people. While he shied away from specifics, he made clear that he wanted to strengthen the system and that he felt he could rally Republican support for "common sense, sensible, important background checks."

By Tuesday, the next time Trump spoke publicly, he used the term only three times. And on Thursday, when reporters pressed him on the progress, he mentioned background checks only once before taking the stage at a campaign rally. During his 90-minute remarks, Trump didn't once invoke the term.

After a week at his golf club in Bedminster, New Jersey, and with the conversation around Dayton and El Paso waning, Trump has -- at least publicly -- scaled back his emphasis on even modest reforms to the nation's gun laws. Instead, the President focused almost exclusively on the issue of mental health, which is a more palatable conversation among the President's base of supporters than imposing new hurdles to the purchase of firearms in the United States.

"We are working very hard to make sure we keep guns out of the hands of insane people and those who are mentally sick and shouldn't have guns. But people have to remember however, that there is a mental illness problem that has to be dealt with. It's not the gun that pulls the trigger. It's the person holding the gun," Trump said during a rally Thursday night in Manchester, New Hampshire. "We can't make it harder for good, solid, law-abiding citizens to protect themselves."

Familiar pattern

While Trump also addressed mental health issues late last week, the disappearance of background check legislation in the President's rhetoric was reminiscent of his slow walk away from gun legislation reforms in the wake of the shooting in Parkland, Florida, last year.

This time, though, White House officials speaking on background because they were not authorized to share internal discussions, insist that Trump has not abandoned the initiative.

White House officials have been putting together several different policy proposals and the White House's legislative affairs team has been sounding out key legislators on Capitol Hill on those proposals, a senior administration official said.

White House officials are aiming to get the President on board with a specific legislative proposal by the time Congress returns from its August recess, the official said.

But White House officials working on the proposals have not yet briefed Trump on the options. Eric Ueland, the White House legislative affairs director, and Joe Grogan, the head of the Domestic Policy Council, were initially slated to brief Trump on the proposal in person on Friday, but the briefing was postponed, though it's unclear why.

Ueland briefed Mick Mulvaney, the acting White House chief of staff, on the gun legislation talks on Thursday, according to an administration official, but Ueland is not yet expected to come to Bedminster to brief the President. The official said the President's position regarding background checks hasn't changed, though it's unclear what, if any, progress there has been.

"We're in constant communication with our (legislative) affairs team and others too," a senior administration official said. "(Trump has) had a lot of conversations with staff about the issue."

Lobbying efforts

Trump said Thursday that he has remained in touch with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and "many" other Republicans. But publicly, Trump has yet to use the power of his presidential bully pulpit to advocate for specific legislation.

Scott Jennings, a longtime McConnell adviser who has recently called for action on gun legislation, said he believes Trump can get Republican lawmakers behind measures to reform the nation's gun laws -- but only if he makes his position on specific legislation known.

"If Trump gets behind a package and signals that he can support something, this will fly," said Jennings, who is also a CNN political commentator. "It's ultimately the President's job to set the position of the Republican Party."

"I think if the President lays down the marker here, Republicans will follow," he said.

The National Rifle Association, meanwhile, has remained active.

An NRA source said the organization is in active talks "every day" with "leaders of Congress, members of Congress and the administration" regarding the NRA's position on various gun measures, but said the talks have not yet drilled down on specific legislative proposals.

"People are calling asking our position," the source said, but so far the NRA has not seen legislative language. "The devil is in the details."

The NRA, though, has been relaying its concerns about action to expand background checks or implement nationwide red flag laws, which are the two proposals the White House is considering. The NRA also opposes background check legislation sponsored by Republican Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania and Democrat Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, a modified version of which the White House has been contemplating, according to a senior administration official.

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