It had been five days since Chris Murphy had heard from the Trump administration on negotiations over expanding background checks on gun sales. On the sixth day, the Connecticut Democrat endorsed an impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump.
The move sealed what many of Murphy’s colleagues had long suspected: That gun negotiations have fallen apart and may be impossible to resurrect now that the vast majority of House Democrats and a growing minority of Democratic senators are now calling for the president’s impeachment. The prospect of cutting a deal with the president that was at odds with the NRA was always a long-shot, but now it seems downright implausible for Trump to negotiate on guns with Democrats seeking to oust him from office.
Story Continued Below
Lawmakers like to talk about walking and chewing gum at the same time, but Murphy acknowledges that the march toward impeachment “may temporarily be the end of the road for a lot of legislative initiatives,” including his.
“I haven’t heard anything since Wednesday and I don’t think that’s coincidental to this crisis,” Murphy said in an interview, adding that administration officials told him they were trying to “quickly” release a proposal in that Wednesday meeting. “I understand calling for impeachment proceedings to begin could chill the administration’s interest in working with me on background checks. But this is about the future of the Republic.”
One of Murphy’s key negotiating partners, Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), said he’d last spoken to Trump about background checks last Thursday. That was the day reporting began to emerge on a whistleblower regarding Trump’s conversation with the president of Ukraine.
“I’m hoping that these things can be compartmentalized and that we can continue to pursue policy that I’ve been advocating. But I acknowledge that a lot of clamoring for impeachment is not helpful,” Toomey said. “It makes it more difficult.”
Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), the third senator working to broker a gun deal, said he hadn’t spoken to the White House since last week: “Things have been quiet right now.”
Since that conversation with Toomey, Trump has largely confirmed press reports that he brought up former Vice President Joe Biden in a July 25 conversation with Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky and that he’d directed a delay in aid to Ukraine before it, admissions that created an impeachment snowball.
The discussions between senators and the president were always an underdog to produce a breakthrough, but they showed unusual durability since a trio of mass shootings in August brought Trump to the table.
But the talks appear unable to survive a Democratic impeachment pile-on. Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.), who’s shown some willingness to expand background checks and potentially buck the NRA, called it a “lost opportunity.” He said it reminded him of when Trump blew up a May meeting with Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) on infrastructure after the speaker suggested Trump was engaged in a “cover-up.”
“It sets a negative tone and stage for doing a lot of other things,” Braun said of the impeachment trajectory. “It probably will eat up the lot of energy in the room to talk about other things that I think the public is interested in our addressing, which would be commonsense gun reforms and … health care.”
Murphy said it was easier to come out for impeachment amid discussions with the White House, in part because “it seems more likely than not that the president is going to side with the NRA once again.” After Attorney General William Barr and White House legislative director Eric Ueland met with senators last week about background checks, a draft of one proposal leaked out and was quickly savaged by the NRA and abandoned by the White House.
After that cool reception and the ensuing Ukraine drip of stories, it was evident Democrats weren’t going to bide their time on impeachment just because Trump hadn’t officially closed the door on guns. Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) had also been discussing a firearms package with Republicans that would expand red flag laws, but he too came out for impeachment proceedings on Tuesday.
Blumenthal was less bearish than Murphy, but he’s also less intimately involved with Trump, who has repeatedly assailed Blumenthal on Twitter over the past three years.
“Whatever our stance on impeachment or the whistleblower complaint, we should be moving forward,” Blumenthal said.
“It seems to me Congress should be able to handle both issues,” argued Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), who had been talked to Ueland and other senators. “I hope very much that we will turn to a package of responsible gun safety bills that can pass the Senate.”
But though negotiators were unwilling to officially call it quits, the end was obvious to others.
“I’m afraid that that ship may have sailed. There doesn’t appear to be any effort by the White House to try to find a reasonable bipartisan approach,” said Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.). “The president’s word is not good.”