White House

Trump and Pence tag-team for familiar refrains at NRA conference

President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence made an 2020 reelection play Friday, both addressing a NRA conference in Indianapolis. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

The Trump White House made an aggressive reelection play Friday, deploying President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence to address a National Rifle Association conference. The fire-up-the-faithful theatrics came on the same day gun activist Mariia Butina, who infiltrated the NRA and reached out aggressively to the Trump campaign team, was sentenced to prison for conspiracy to act as a foreign agent for Russia.

At the gun confab, the president announced he will withdraw the United States as a signatory from the Arms Trade Treaty, which former President Barack Obama signed but Congress never ratified. It is designed to regulate $70 billion in global conventional arms sales and prevent human rights abusers from obtaining firearms. The Obama administration voted for it at the UN despite strong opposition from the NRA. 

Trump had a document making the move official ready in a folder that had been placed on his poduim. With much fanfare and amid a brief “U-S-A!” chant, he signed it on stage before showing it to the crowd as they cheered and he tossed the pen into the front row.

Democrats were quick to criticize the move. “The United States Senate has failed to approve this global treaty solely because of Republicans’ paralyzing fear of backlash from the NRA. This is another reminder that if we’re going to get anywhere to break the inaction on the kind of commonsense steps to stop gun violence and keep people safe, we must stop letting the NRA set the agenda in Washington,” Senate Foreign Relations Committee ranking member Robert Menendez, D-N.J., said in a statement. 

Rarely does any administration send both a sitting president and vice president to the same event. But polls show the Trump-Pence ticket facing an uphill — though far from insurmountable — climb to win a second term. Trump trails both Democratic frontrunners, former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., in a hypothetical head-to-head races, at least nationally.

Trump trails Biden by 7.8 percentage points, according to an average of a handful of polls averaged by RealClearPolitics, which found an average of the same surveys puts Sanders ahead in a one-on-one fight by 2.7 points.

“I’m a champion for the Second Amendment. … It’s not going anywhere,” the president said.

“They want to take away your guns,” Trump said of Democrats. “You better get out there and vote.”

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“We will always protect and preserve the Constitution of the United States. And there are some people running right now, I don’t think they have that No. 1 on their list,” Trump said with pursed lips. 

No Democratic 2020 candidates are pushing a Second Amendment repeal. And none in Congress have proposed such legislation — but their warnings surely will be part of their respective reelection stump remarks.

The president accused Democrats and federal investigators of trying to orchestrate “a coup” via the Justice Department’s Russia election meddling probe. “But I didn’t need a gun for that one,” he said. “Tried an overthrow. But we caught ’em.”

Pence spoke first before pro-gun activists Friday in Indianapolis before Trump delivered the keynote, and both tried to paint the Second Amendment — not just tougher laws or executive orders that might limit access to guns or firearms accessories — as in jeopardy if any Democrat defeats Trump in 17 months.

Pence also sounded an alarm about the Second Amendment, saying early in his remarks he was honored to be addressing “freedom-loving Americans.” He called the right to bear arms “a freedom … at the heart of the American story,” extolling the country’s founders for winning independence via “the powder in their muskets” and praising prairie-conquering “pioneers” for using their “Springfields, Winchesters and Colts” to do so.

Pence called it an ongoing “struggle to defend the Second Amendment,” adding: “firearms in the hands of law-abiding citizens don’t threaten our families, they protect our families.”

Their comments came after the president in recent days has signaled he views Sanders and Biden as legitimate threats in the general election and the most likely to capture the Democratic nomination.

“I believe it will be Crazy Bernie Sanders vs. Sleepy Joe Biden as the two finalists to run against maybe the best Economy in the history of our Country (and MANY other great things)! I look forward to facing whoever it may be,” Trump tweeted on April 16. “May God Rest Their Soul!”

[OPINION: Biden’s path to 2020 is strewn with cautionary tales]

Earlier this week, he told reporters he does not see any of the other Democratic candidates beating him. On Friday, he responded to a question about the former VP by declaring he would “easily” defeat Biden.

Both Democrats appeal to blue-collar workers — especially in the Rust Belt and Upper Midwest states that helped Trump upset Hillary Clinton in 2016. Many of those voters are gun-owners, hence the Trump-Pence tag team effort.

Polls show Republican voters sending mixed signals about access to guns in the United States.

For instance, a recent Reuters/Ipsos poll of 6,800 adults found 69 percent of those surveyed want stricter limits on guns, including 57 percent of Republicans. (Eighty-five percent of Democrats want the same.) But on a full Second Amendment repeal, the divide — which Trump and Pence sought to exploit in Indiana — is much wider.

An Economist/YouGov poll conducted last year found just 8 percent of Republicans favor getting rid of that Amendment, which guarantees — with some exceptions, such as automatic weapons — a right to own firearms. (Among Democrats, that survey found 39 percent support a full repeal.)

Sanders long advocated moderate gun policies, and was attacked from the left in the 2016 Democratic primary before more recently advocating for stricter gun laws. Biden has been more in line with the party — especially its liberal base — for years supporting bans on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, as well as a universal background check mandate.

The incumbents, however, served up plenty of red meat for their gun-loving base on Friday.

“I’ll give you my gun if you pry it from my cold dead hands,” Pence said, quoting actor and gun activist Charlton Heston at a NRA conference in 2000.

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