The Slatest

Run, Hide, Don’t Fight

Congress shelters in place as the Trump administration shoots down its own gun proposal.

Trump claps in a stadium packed with his supporters.
Donald Trump at a Keep America Great rally at the Santa Ana Star Center in Rio Rancho, New Mexico, on Monday.
Reuters/Tom Brenner

On Wednesday morning, the conservative Daily Caller first published what it described in its headline as “The Document The White House, [Attorney General William] Barr Are Using to Push Gun Control On Republicans.” The document, technically titled “Idea for New Unlicensed-Commercial-Sale Background Checks,” would extend a background check requirement to “all advertised commercial sales, including sales at gun shows,” similar to the Joe Manchin–Pat Toomey background checks legislation that originally failed in 2013.

It was the first outline of a potential bipartisan bill to expand background checks put to paper since bipartisan talks about reviving Manchin-Toomey began in August following a spate of mass shootings. And once it dropped, most Republicans couldn’t run away from it fast enough. Including those pushing it.

Hogan Gidley, a White House spokesman, told reporters that the document was just some old document and not anything that President Donald Trump was supporting or pushing—“not even close.” A few hours later, Gidley had erected a total firewall between the White House and the piece of paper: “That is not a White House document, and any suggestion to contrary is completely false.”

Meanwhile, Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley said that two administration officials—Bill Barr and Eric Ueland, a longtime Hill staffer whom Trump recently named his director of legislative affairs—had walked him through the document on Tuesday, part of a series of visits with individual senators and House members, including Texas Sen. Ted Cruz.

Ueland was careful to note to reporters that he wasn’t pushing anything on Republicans, merely tossing ideas around in a sort of brainstorming session. And that Trump had asked him to do so.

“The president has asked us to talk and listen to perspectives, views, opinions and ideas, concepts from members of Congress, and that’s what we continue to do here,” Ueland said.

Another reporter asked: Has the president signed off on these ideas in the memo?

“The president has asked us to come to the Hill to engage in conversations and seek feedback from members on the question of what ideas they have and the reactions to policy ideas to deal with the issue of mass gun violence,” Ueland said.

What is different in this memo from the original Manchin-Toomey proposal, I asked, to make it more palatable to Republicans?

“Listen, we’re up here talking with members and getting their feedback on various ideas … in order to react to the challenge of mass gun violence. We’ll take that information back to the president for his direction as he makes a decision going forward.”

Barr, like Ueland, appeared to recognize that the White House was quickly walling off its efforts on the Hill as freelancing. He summoned Capitol Hill reporters on the Senate subway platform for a brief press conference to clarify that he wasn’t pushing anything—he was just on the Hill “kicking some ideas around.”

“I haven’t shared any list of proposals with the senators,” Barr said, “but there are a number of different proposals being considered.”

When Hawley was asked what he made of Barr’s “proposal” on background checks, he said that it wasn’t “a proposal so much as an idea.”

“[Barr] said, this is something we’ve been thinking about, we’re just sort of working through it,” Hawley told reporters. “So I’d need to know a lot more than what they have down.”

And there was another, perhaps more important factor than legislative text that he needed to see before making his opinion—one that’s widely shared by his fellow Senate Republicans.

“My question was, ‘Where’s the president on this?’ ” Hawley said. “I asked that question directly. Is this something the president supports?” Neither Barr nor Ueland, he said, “had an answer for that.”

“That’s an important piece,” Hawley added, “because if the president doesn’t support it, there’s no point, it’s not going to become law, so it’s like, why are we going through this?”

“Isn’t that weird?” a reporter asked. Hawley ignored this.

Democrats wouldn’t come out in support of the Idea just yet either. They didn’t want to sign off on something before seeing the finer print, and they didn’t want to settle prematurely for something less than their existing negotiating position—immediate Senate passage of the House’s more expansive universal background checks proposal—before any compromise legislation had been introduced. They didn’t know what to do with it, really, at all.

“I’m just not sure where we’re at,” Connecticut Sen. Chris Murphy, one of the Democrats who’ve been working with Republicans and the White House to try and reach a background checks deal, said on Wednesday. “Are we supposed to negotiate over this? Are we supposed to wait until the president signs off on it? I’m just not exactly sure what the White House wants us to do at this point.”

The longer the Idea simply exists in the ether, with few advocates and no backing from major players, the more likely it is to be smashed apart before it ever gets the chance to be translated into legislative text.

And that smashing is well underway.

One of the top concerns for Republicans about background checks bills is a fear among their constituents that such legislation would create a federal firearms “registry” to “track” gun owners. Barr’s proposal—the White House’s proposal? Someone’s proposal?—goes to pains to note that those licensed conductors of background checks “would not retain any identifying information about the buyer.” (Emphasis Barr’s.)

But with Trump still twisting in the wind, and Republicans twisting with him, the National Rifle Association leapt on the offensive Wednesday afternoon.

The outline began Wednesday as a White House idea. By midday, it became something that Bill Barr and Eric Ueland were kicking around. If Trump doesn’t decide, soon, that he’s willing to expand background checks, it will soon be downgraded to an apocryphal notion, or a dream that no one ever had.