A Trump administration proposal to expand background checks on firearm sales is already in jeopardy unless President Donald Trump unexpectedly saves it, with the White House distancing itself and the National Rifle Association outright opposing it.
A background checks proposal began circulating on Capitol Hill this week as Attorney General William Barr and other officials met with Senate Republicans to discuss new gun safety plans. But many Republicans hadn’t read the proposal, and they don’t plan to take it seriously unless Trump personally weighs in.
“You don’t need to worry about what’s floating around,” Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) said. “We aren’t going to do anything that the president isn’t going to sign anyway.”
When asked about the proposal, Sen. Todd Young (R-Ind.) first asked whether Trump publicly endorsed it as his own.
“Once the president does, I’ll look forward to reviewing it,” Young said.
Barr and White House legislative affairs director Eric Ueland spent a second day Wednesday meeting with Republican senators to discuss expanding background checks, but no one is taking ownership of the document discussed at some of these meetings. The proposal would expand background checks to all commercial sales and create an entity to perform them.
Republicans discussed the mixed messages durintg their lunch and how most of them needed to hear from the president before weighing in on anything, according to attendees.
Barr wouldn’t say whether the document came from the Justice Department, but Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) said after meeting with Barr that "there's no question that the heart of the attorney general's idea is a mechanism for expanding background checks beyond what we have today."
A senator who met with Barr said the attorney general made clear he had authorization from the White House.
Yet the White House seemed to brush off the proposal, creating confusion and echoing a consistent theme of the Trump presidency: Only Trump speaks for Trump.
“The president has not signed off on anything yet but has been clear he wants meaningful solutions that actually protect the American people and could potentially prevent these tragedies from ever happening again," White House spokesman Hogan Gidley said.
As far as the document circulating on the Hill, he added: “That is not a White House document, and any suggestion to the contrary is completely false.”
The NRA is not on board either, with Jason Ouimet, executive director of the NRA’s Institute for Legislative Action, calling it “a non-starter with the NRA and our 5 million members because it burdens law-abiding gun owners while ignoring what actually matters: fixing the broken mental health system and the prosecution of violent criminals.”
The release of actual paper documentation of discussions between senators and the White House rapidly accelerates the political debate over background checks. And the NRA’s swift denouncement of the plan highlighted how much more difficult sensitive discussions become once they spill into the open.
“You know what happens when people have a target,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), who met with Barr this week. “And I don’t know who leaked it, but obviously that wasn’t the idea.”
Just hours after being first reported by the Daily Caller and obtained by Politico, the proposal was already taking on heavy water. Incoming House Freedom Caucus Chairman Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.) said the proposal wasn’t from the White House, was “maybe” from the Justice Department and “wouldn’t support that” regardless of where the proposal originated.
Barr met this week with Cornyn and Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), John Kennedy (R-La.) and Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) this week and on Wednesday evening met with Toomey and Sens. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) and Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), who have been negotiating with the White House on expanding background checks. They said the 45-minute meeting was positive but there were no breakthroughs.
"The attorney general's bringing back the opinions of Republicans to the president," Murphy said. "This is a complicated issue and it probably needs a creative solution to get to 60 votes. I can understand why the attorney general would want to spend some time up here surveying opinion before the White House firmly lands on a proposal."
The next steps were unclear. Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.) said he believes what “is going to happen is AG Barr is going to come up with a recommendation.” But Barr downplayed the expanded background checks proposal to reporters Wednesday, saying he hadn’t shared “any list of proposals with the senators” during his visits. He added that “there are a number of different proposals that are being considered.”
“I’m up here just kicking around some ideas, getting perspectives so I can be in a better position to advise the president,” Barr said. “But the president has made no decision yet on these issues.”
Manchin said Barr “deserves all the credit” and “wants to keep this on track, while Toomey noted “it’s significant that the attorney general is putting a specific idea on the table.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.). said he too met with Barr and that the president has “got to lead” or nothing will get done. He attributed the White House’s distancing from the background check proposal as a way to preserve options.
Barr and Ueland are seen less as advocates and more as carrying out the president's mission of talking to Republicans to see what they can support. At the same time, former NRA staffer and current deputy assistant to the president Michael Williams is pushing back against the efforts from within the White House, much to the consternation of those involved. Ivanka Trump, the president’s daughter, has also reached out to several senators on the issue and has made it clear she wants to see some type of action.
"There are former NRA employees in the White House. And so for every two or three steps that they seem to be taking, it seems to be pushing them back," Sen. Doug Jones (D-Ala.) said.
While senators, White House officials and the president himself have been discussing firearm reforms for six weeks now, the first concrete proposal came out with roughly a week before a two-week recess and amid a bruising fight over spending bills in the Senate. Some senators working on curbing gun violence want much more urgency.
“My preference would be that we bring the bill to the Senate floor before the recess,” Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) said.
Under the administration proposal, background checks would be conducted through federal firearm licensees, also known as FFLs, or a newly created group of licensed transfer agents. Sellers would choose voluntarily whether the federal firearm licensees or a transfer agent keeps records of the transactions.
Both are concessions to Republicans fearful that gun owners would object to any proposal that requires them to submit to background checks as well as a fear that the government keeps their personal information.
The plan is narrower than a universal background checks bill passed by the House and pushed by top Democrats like Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer.
Trump has yet to comment directly on it as both his own White House staff and Barr kept the proposal at arm's length. Until they hear from Trump, the draft floating around Capitol Hill says far less than a tweet or a statement from the president himself.
"In the end, [Trump] is going to have make a hard decision," said Senate Majority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.).
James Arkin, Anita Kumar and Melanie Zanona contributed to this report.