Donald Trump posted about the need for “real solutions and real leadership” on Wednesday in response to the school mass shooting in Uvalde, Texas, and he’ll likely make a similar call on Friday, when he travels to Houston to address the National Rifle Association. But when there was another mass shooting at a school during his presidency, he offered no new solutions and, according to a person present, was mentally absent at a critical moment for addressing the gun violence crisis.
As Trump’s team was preparing him in late 2018 to meet with the families of murdered children from Parkland, Florida, the president, according to the individual present, was more concerned about his border wall, a desire to “stick it to the Mexicans,” and an unflattering headline on the conservative news site, Drudge Report.
The meeting in question was in December of 2018, when the administration had invited select Parkland victims’ families to the White House for a roundtable on “the Federal Commission on School Safety Report.” Before Trump’s on-camera summit with the families, he was in a closed-door Oval Office meeting, where his staff was trying to prepare the then-president to discuss school safety and what his administration was, ostensibly, doing about it.
The advisers got barely “two minutes” into briefing Trump on “school-safety” recommendations before the president upended the meeting with a long and unrelated tirade, according to Miles Taylor, then a Department of Homeland Security official who was in the Oval that day.
“I want to close the border. Let’s do it. If they don’t give me the money we shut the whole border,” Trump said, according to contemporaneous notes Taylor took of the meeting and shared with Rolling Stone. Trump wanted the money for his wall, and his push to buildwas was part of a longer rant in which he discussed the border and yelled at his lieutenants about various media grievances. “can’t focus on the kids. Doesn’t care about the kids. Can only focus on the wall and possible shutdown … Fuck this,” the notes read.
According to Taylor’s account, the then-sitting president was furious over an article in a conservative media outlet that had been linked at the Drudge Report — something about Trump’s own administration promising billions in aid to Mexico and Central American nations with the aim of cutting migration to the United States. “Why the fuck are we giving them $5 billion?” Trump exclaimed, as Taylor elaborated on Wednesday. “We should be giving that money to [build] the wall!”
As the conversation progressed, Trump added, “Let’s stick it to the Mexicans,” right around the time the meeting “devolve[d] into a conversation about wall design,” according to Taylor’s notes.
“He just wanted to talk about the wall, and things that were on Laura Ingraham,” Taylor tells Rolling Stone. Trump “went into a diatribe about how he wanted us to call Tucker Carlson, call Lou Dobbs, call Laura [Ingraham], call Mark Levin … Again, the parents of dead children were in the next room.”
Shortly thereafter, Trump would open the roundtable meeting with the families and other participants by professing deep concern about school shootings: “We’re here to discuss concrete steps of our nation that we have to take — we have no choice and we don’t want a choice — we’re going to take to prevent school shootings and keep our children safe.”
Taylor is a vocal Trump critic, and even before he attended the December meeting, he’d already written an anonymous op-ed for The New York Times in which he said he was part of the “resistance inside the Trump administration.” But Taylor’s depiction of Trump’s lack of empathy and focus when it came to trauma survivors matches other accounts of the president’s time in office. Earlier in 2018, Trump met with families of those claimed in the Santa Fe High School shooting in Santa Fe, Texas. Following his conversation with Rhonda Hart, whose 14-year-old daughter was among the dead, Hart told The Associated Press: “It was like talking to a toddler.”
And Trump’s alleged lack of attention to school safety also squares with his record in office. In 2018, Parkland students joined with other young victims of gun violence to hold the “March for Our Lives,” a massive event in March of that year where activists came to Washington to beg Congress and the White House for strong action on gun violence — the largest national push for federal action on gun violence since a gunman murdered 20 small children and 6 adults at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut.
The March for Our Lives group pushed for a ban on assault weapons, a ban on high-capacity magazines that allow shooters to fire more bullets without reloading, a national licensing and gun registry, and other federal measures. Democrats overwhelmingly supported the Parkland agenda, but the NRA opposed the measures and Republican members of Congress did as well.
Trump did not support the proposals, and they died in Congress, where Republicans controlled the House and Senate.
The Trump team’s proposed measures to address the torrent of shootings in schools and beyond contained little in the way of checks on guns. Instead, it focused on “school safety” grants and a gun industry-backed plan to make it easier to share background check information among states.
During this time, there was a cynical (and ultimately vindicated) assessment was that Trump and other influential conservatives were simply running out the clock on making any truly ambitious proposal to address the ongoing gun deaths, and that the White House cared far more about providing Trump with opportunities to at least look like a leader on live TV.
In this case, Trump’s response was just a symptom of a status quo. Parkland, like other school shootings and gun rampages, never earned the Republican Party’s committed attention. Just two days after the Parkland massacre in February 2018, the Republican National Committee blasted out a “Pundit Prep” memo to its media surrogates and allies. The email, a copy of which was reviewed by Rolling Stone, began with a “Tragedy In Florida” section, which only included a copy-and-paste of two tweets: one from “@GOPChairwoman,” one from “@realDonaldTrump.” As if to underscore how much of a priority addressing gun violence was to the party, the pair of brief tweets were immediately followed by a lengthy “Still No Evidence Of Collusion” cluster of pro-Trump talking points, and then subsequent passages on immigration and infrastructure.
The perception that Trump had only limited interest in addressing gun violence in schools was shared, at least in part, by people within the administration, according to Taylor. “It was widely understood [within the administration] that the White House sees this as a political annoyance rather than a public-safety necessity,” Taylor says of the post-Parkland push for action on gun violence. The internal sentiment, he says, was that “‘Those guys aren’t going to do anything.’”
While Republicans were successfully blocking action on the Parkland Agenda, the students warned that without meaningful change, the mass murder would continue.
Today, the determination to still hold the NRA’s annual celebration, in the same state that had just suffered this week’s horrific mass murder of children and two of their teachers in an elementary school, is merely longtime standard operating procedure for the NRA and the GOP, whenever managing the fallout of a seemingly unrelenting cycle of domestic gun carnage. It’s a party strategy of policy-stonewalling, calculated nonchalance, and rhetorical bait-and-switch (until the news cycle takes its course and moves on from the body count) that was perhaps perfected, though certainly not invented or limited to, then-President Trump.
The gun carnage has, of course, continued unabated. The most recent high-profile school shooting happened Tuesday in Uvalde, Texas, where an 18-year-old entered an elementary school with a high-powered rifle and murdered 19 students and two adults.
Three days after the shooting, the NRA is holding its annual meeting in Houston, Texas, where Trump, Gov. Greg Abbott, and Sen. Ted Cruz, a Texas Republican, are all slated to speak, via video or in person.
A source familiar with the matter told Rolling Stone on Wednesday that a draft of Trump’s speech was being updated to acknowledge the Uvalde mass shooting. But in the speech, the source said, Trump’s opposition to various proposed gun safety measures remains unchanged.