Among the steps Donald Trump would need to take to get to the White House, one of the first would be convincing the leaders of the National Rifle Association that he was their kind of candidate. Nothing about the Manhattan penthouse-dwelling real estate mogul suggested he was a gun rights crusader. Once a Democrat, Trump had supported a ban on assault weapons and waiting periods for firearms purchases. But as he prepared to launch a presidential campaign in early 2015, Trump did have one thing in his favor: That winter, he retained the services of Chuck Laudner.
A 49-year-old political operative who had spent much of his professional life in Iowa, Laudner had an uncanny ability to mobilize conservative, blue-collar voters. In 2012, he engineered an unlikely win for Rick Santorum in the Iowa caucuses by driving the former Pennsylvania senator around the state in his pickup truck. Over the course of his career, Laudner had also developed relationships with NRA officials. Laudner worked those relationships on Trump’s behalf, even as he devised a grassroots strategy targeting Republicans who “wouldn’t be caught dead at a Republican event,” as he he later told the Washington Post. Laudner did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
In February, 2015, the NRA’s Annual Meeting in Nashville was less than two months away. Trump had still not officially announced his candidacy, but if he was going to have a chance in a field that would come to comprise 17 contenders, he would have to secure an invitation to the NRA gathering. His most formidable rivals were all NRA allies, and all were slated to speak at the event.
Laudner reached out to his NRA contacts. In mid-March, the gun rights group updated its convention schedule: Alongside confirmed speakers including former Governor Jeb Bush of Florida; Senator Ted Cruz of Texas; Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin; and Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, Trump would now get a turn on the dais, too.
“Chuck set up the invite,” Sam Nunberg, a Trump advisor at the time, told The Trace. “He got Trump the speaking slot.”
Laudner’s bit of matchmaking marked the beginning of a political marriage of convenience between Trump and the NRA. From the gun group, the novice candidate gained well-funded advertising support, an organized get-out-the-vote operation, and a well-tuned anti-establishment messaging machine to vouch for his newfound populism. From Trump, the NRA got a nominee who echoed the group’s dire rhetoric and attacks on the media — and now a president whose embrace has made the gun group perhaps the most influential organization on the ascendant right.
Today, Trump will speak at the NRA’s Annual Meeting in Atlanta — the first sitting president to do so since Ronald Reagan in 1983. Here’s how we arrived at this moment, in 14 steps.
April 10, 2015: A pledge of allegiance
Dressed in a navy blue suit and periwinkle tie, Trump takes the stage at the 144th NRA Annual Meeting to moderate applause. He begins his speech characteristically, with effusive praise for his host.
“I love the NRA,” Trump says, before introducing his sons, Donald Jr. and Eric, who are avid hunters. “They love this group, they love the people, they love the NRA more than anyone I know.”
When Eric and Don appear on stage, the latter steps to the microphone and announces, “These are our people.”
Trump’s speech is less than eight minutes long, a condensed version of what he will repeatedly say on the stump over the coming year. He touches on the “incompetence” of the Obama administration, China’s currency policies, and the porousness of the American border, the last of which twines with years of warnings about illegal immigration from the NRA. When Trump turns to gun rights, he offers an emphatic statement short on detail: “I promise you one thing,” Trump says. “If I run for president, and I win, the Second Amendment will be totally protected, that I can tell you.”
June 17–July 21, 2015: Striking out on the trail, armed with pro-gun talking points
Trump officially launches his campaign on June 17, but the headlines he makes are shared with news of a mass shooting that occurs that night at a historically black church in Charleston, South Carolina, where a young white supremacist fatally shoots nine people. It is the first in a sequence of high-profile shootings that will further inflame the gun debate over the course of the 2016 campaign.
The Manhattan businessman perfected the anti-establishment message the gun group had been honing for years.
On July 7, Trump gives an interview to Ammoland, a website popular with gun enthusiasts. With the attack in Charleston renewing calls for firearms restrictions, Trump takes the opportunity to praise the NRA. He states that he is a “life member,” who is “proud” of the group’s “service in protecting our right to keep and bear arms.” He adds: “The NRA’s efforts to stop dangerous, gun-banning legislation and regulation is invaluable.”
Later in the interview, Trump declares he opposes limits on magazine capacities, expanding background checks, and “taking guns from law-abiding citizens.” When asked whether he still supports a ban on assault weapons, in particular on AR-15 rifles, he answers, “the AR-15 does not fall under this category.”
At the conclusion of the interview, Trump proclaims his aversion to “gun-free zones,” a favored NRA theme that he will repeatedly return to throughout his campaign. He specifically says he wants to abolish restrictions on private guns at military bases, stating that, as president, he would “mandate that soldiers remained armed and on alert.”
Nine days later, a gunman kills five U.S. Marines at two military sites in Chattanooga, Tennessee. The event seems to boost Trump’s confidence in his new positions. He takes to Twitter on July 17:
Get rid of gun free zones. The four great marines who were just shot never had a chance. They were highly trained but helpless without guns.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 17, 2015
MILITARY LIVES MATTER! END GUN FREE ZONES! OUR SOLDIERS MUST BE ABLE TO PROTECT THEMSELVES! THIS HAS TO STOP!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 17, 2015
Four days later, Trump appears at a speaking engagement in Charleston, where he lays out his philosophy for an audience in a city that is still reeling from the nightmare that occurred a month earlier: “We have to get rid of that whole gun-free zone nonsense and just stop it.”
June 30, 2015: An NRA bomb thrower tosses Trump a valentine
Ted Nugent, the rockstar-turned-right-wing activist, is beloved by the core of the NRA’s membership, and every year he serves as a main attraction at the group’s annual meeting. His tens of thousands of loyal fans believe he’s a teller of hard truths who doesn’t pay lip service to political correctness. He casually refers to immigrants as “murderers and rapists and savage people,” and has his own antipathy for gun-free zones, which he holds responsible for “engineering slaughters.”
Nugent sees in a Trump a simpatico soul. The candidate has called Mexican immigrants “rapists” who bring “drugs” and “crime” over the border, and says he wants to “build a great wall” to keep them out.
In a radio interview, Nugent describes Trump as “bold, brazen, courageous,” adding that, as president, “He would kick ass and take names, and that’s what America needs right now.”
September 18, 2015: Trump puts his gun platform in writing
The first position paper of the detail-light Trump campaign addresses immigration. The second is entitled, “Protecting our Second Amendment Rights Will Make America Great Again.” It proclaims that carrying a concealed handgun “is a right, not a privilege,” and argues that a permit that allows a person to tote a hidden firearm in one state should be valid in all 50, like “a driver’s license,” rather than solely in the place of its origin.
The policy to which the paper refers to is called “reciprocity.” Its opponents contend that unlike driver’s licenses, states have wildly different standards — and some not at all — for who should be allowed to carry a firearm in public. Passing federal reciprocity legislation is a top priority for the NRA.
February 17, 2016: A sudden Supreme Court vacancy raises the stakes
Justice Antonin Scalia dies on February 13. Of all of his colleagues on the Supreme Court, he was the most fervent defender of the Second Amendment, and the most beloved by the NRA. In 2008, Scalia wrote the majority opinion in Heller vs. District of Columbia, which officially affirmed an individual’s right to own a firearm for personal protection.
Four days later, during a televised town hall hosted by MSNBC, Trump said that as president he would use the case as a litmus test for nominating a new Supreme Court justice.
At a rally that same day in South Carolina, he went further.
“We lost a great Supreme Court justice and nobody thought this was going to be part of the equation,” he says. “And all of a sudden, if somebody gets in and it’s the wrong person, they’ll take that Second Amendment away so fast your head will spin.”
May 20, 2016: The NRA sends a message to Never Trumpers
Defying all expectations, Donald Trump returns to the NRA’s Annual Meeting, this time as the presumptive Republican nominee. The party remains bitterly divided over his ascent. Conservative heavyweights continue to shun his campaign. Inside the arena at the Kentucky Expo Center, however, Trump is greeted with rapturous applause. On stage, the NRA’s top lobbyist, Chris Cox, endorses him, the earliest the organization has ever thrown its weight behind a presidential candidate.
“If your preferred candidate dropped out of the race, it’s time to get over it,” Cox says.
July 2016: Backup Clinton-bashers and primetime proxies
On July 1, the Trump campaign hires Kellyanne Conway, a veteran Republican pollster whose firm, the Polling Company, has long counted the NRA among its clients. She will emerge as one of Trump’s most crucial advisors, eventually becoming his campaign manager.
At the moment, Trump is not airing any television commercials, but the next day, the NRA steps in to fill the void with a $2 million campaign that runs in seven battleground states.
The ad is not about guns, but rather the 2012 terrorist attack on an American compound in Benghazi, Libya, which left four Americans dead. The resulting investigation has become an obsession of conservative commentators and a parable of Hillary Clinton’s alleged disregard for rank-and-file Americans. She is later cleared of any wrongdoing.
Three weeks later comes the Republican National Convention, in Cleveland. On July 19, Chris Cox is given a prime-time speaking slot at the event, a big deal for the NRA, which historically has been sidelined at the party’s marquee gatherings.
Cox gets right to the point. “We are on the cusp of losing this great American freedom,” he says, referring to the Second Amendment. “And with it, this great nation.” He adds: “The only way we save it … is by electing Donald Trump the next president of the United States.”
August 2016: The NRA spends when others won’t
The home stretch of the campaign is just around the corner, and most of the conservative groups that traditionally spend massive sums to elect Republican presidents — notably PACs associated with the Koch brothers and Karl Rove — are sitting on their wallets. Again, the NRA steps in to fill the void, laying out another $6 million to help its preferred candidate. The ads that money buys remain concentrated in swing states like North Carolina, Ohio, Nevada, and Pennsylvania.
October 2016: Blanketing the battlegrounds
In the final weeks of the campaign, roughly one out of every 20 television ads in the key state of Pennsylvania is paid for by the NRA. One spot features a woman at home alone when a burglar breaks into her house. The narrator intones, “Don’t let Hillary leave you protected with nothing but a phone.”
November 3, 2016: Trump sends one last signal to gun voters
With days to go before the polls open, the Trump campaign quietly publishes a roster of a few dozen individuals loosely related to the gun industry who would “advise” Trump on Second Amendment issues. What looks at the time like the last-ditch effort of a failing campaign to turn out a loyal voting bloc will come instead to signal the NRA’s further integration into Trump’s inner circle: The coalition’s co-chairs are Donald Trump, Jr. and chief NRA lobbyist Chris Cox.
November 8, 2016: The NRA’s huge bet pays off
Hillary Clinton wins three million more popular votes nationally than Donald Trump, but loses half a dozen battleground states by exceptionally slight margins, including Pennsylvania, where the NRA was especially active in October. All told, the NRA spends over $30 million to propel Trump into office — more than any other outside group.
January 20, 2017: American Carnage — and its prequel
When Trump addresses Americans on Inauguration Day, he does not convey the typical presidential optimism. Instead, he compares “rusted-out factories” to “tombstones,” and laments “the crime and the gangs and the drugs that have stolen too many lives and robbed our country of so much unrealized potential.”
Then Trump delivers his coda: “This American carnage stops right here and right now.”
The speech was partially crafted by 31-year-old Stephen Miller, Trump’s senior policy advisor. Miller has said that Wayne LaPierre’s 1994 book, Guns, Crime, and Freedom, convinced him to become a conservative while growing up in California. Parts of the 500-page tome presage key passages in Trump’s address. In it, LaPierre, the NRA’s executive vice president and chief executive officer, uses the phrase “carnage on our streets,” and the word “murder” appears 114 times.
February 1, 2017: Wayne LaPierre gets a seat at the table
The day after Trump nominated Judge Neil Gorsuch to Supreme Court, the White House holds a meeting for conservative kingmakers in the Roosevelt Room, an effort to enlist them in the coming nomination fight. The seat right next to Trump, in full view of the cameras, goes to LaPierre. The NRA then goes on to aggressively push the Senate to approve Gorsuch for the seat, running ads against Democrats facing re-election in Trump states — and thereby claiming credit for itself in Trump’s best-reviewed accomplishment in his first 100 days.
February 20–27, 2017: #Counterresistance
The NRA releases an ad seeking to rally the troops against those it says are trying undermine the Trump administration. The president “will need every ounce of energy we can muster,” LaPierre says into a camera. “And he has no more powerful ally than the NRA.” The video is distributed on Twitter, accompanied by the hashtag #counterresistence.
A few days later, at the 2017 Conservative Political Action Conference, LaPierre accuses the “violent left” of trying to upend American society. “The message is absolutely clear: They want revenge.”
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LaPierre’s speech is followed by yet another ad, released at the end of the month. The spot is the start of new campaign assaulting the mainstream media. It targets the New York Times, which the NRA accuses of brazen bias against Trump.
“America has stopped looking to the New York Times for truth,” the ad says, amid assorted scenes of chaos.
February 28, 2017: Trump takes care of an NRA to-do
The NRA’s first legislative victory of the Trump presidency erases a rule put on the books during the waning days of the Obama administration. The regulation required the Social Security Administration to report to the federal gun background-check system the names of disability beneficiaries who were deemed unable to manage their own financial affairs. When Trump signs a repeal bill in early March, the NRA praises the move and calls it the first step toward “what many hope will be a new era of respect for the right to keep and bear arms.”
April 15, 2017: A tandem victory lap
The NRA announces that Donald Trump will once again speak at the NRA’s Annual Meeting on April 28. It is the first time a sitting president will appear at the convention since Ronald Reagan. The group says it is “honored” to host Trump, and that it is “excited to once again have a president who respects the Second Amendment.”
April 17, 2017: Early harvest
Veteran journalist Steve Herman surfaces this Easter egg at the holiday celebration: LaPierre enjoying a Washington tradition on the White House lawn:
— Steve Herman (@W7VOA) April 17, 2017