Trump, in legal peril, draws cheers at NRA convention; Pence draws boos

Second Amendment

INDIANAPOLIS – In his first public speech since the day he was arraigned on 34 felony counts in a New York courtroom, former president Donald Trump was welcomed onstage Friday at the National Rifle Association’s annual meeting by a standing ovation that spanned more than two minutes.

Former vice president Mike Pence got a markedly different welcome. Trump’s former running mate was met with a mix of applause and loud boos that continued as he prepared to speak in the state he once served as governor.

“I love you too,” he joked in response. Later, he called serving as vice president the greatest honor of his life. While many applauded, an attendee loudly shouted “never again!”

Trump latched onto the moment, and mentioned it in his own remarks later in the afternoon.

“I hope you gave Pence a good warm approval,” said Trump. “No, because he is a nice man if you want to really know the truth, he is, he’s a good man. And I heard it was very rough.”

The contrasting receptions reflected Trump’s standing as the polling leader in the Republican presidential primary, even as he faces greater legal peril, as well as the challenges confronting Pence as he makes moves toward potentially entering the race as an long-shot in public surveys. Pence has faced intense backlash from both Trump and his supporters for refusing to try to overturn Trump’s defeat in the 2020 presidential election as vice president.

The NRA event, which drew speeches and videotaped addresses from Republican candidates and potential contenders, marked the first time that Trump and former Pence have appeared at the same 2024 campaign-geared event. Pence, who has not yet declared his intent to run but has made moves toward entering the race, was the first potential candidate to speak, while Trump closed out the program.

Trump had not given a public speech since he spoke from his Mar-a-Lago estate last week after he pleaded not guilty to 34 felony counts of falsifying business records related to payments intended to silence an adult-film actress during his 2016 presidential campaign. Trump is also facing other investigations.

Trump is the first former or sitting U.S. president to be criminally charged, and in his speech he sought to tie his own legal troubles to the NRA as he once again disparaged the prosecutor in one case.

He claimed the same “radical left” attorney general “coming after me in New York state is also waging war on the NRA, shamefully trying to destroy this legendary organization.” This week, Trump was deposed in Manhattan as part of a $250 million lawsuit brought by New York Attorney General Letitia James (D) that accuses him and his children of committing repeated fraud. James previously sued the National Rifle Association over alleged tax violations and self-dealing.

The NRA event comes just days after five people were killed in a shooting at a Louisville bank, and after six people, including three nine-year-olds, were killed at a school in Nashville at the end of March. Last year, the NRA held the same meeting in Texas just days after a deadly school shooting in Uvalde. This year’s meeting also overlaps with the two-year anniversary of another mass killing in Indianapolis.

The 2024 hopefuls repeated familiar lines about their view of the problems that led to the shootings, saying it was not access to guns, but factors like mental health and crime that led to the mass casualties.

Pence called for accelerating executions of mass shooters, saying, “justice delayed is justice denied.”

“I believe the time has come to institute a federal death penalty statute with accelerated appeal to ensure that those who engage in mass shootings face execution in months, not years,” he said, to loud applause.

Trump, for his part, said “the only way to stop these wicked actions is to ensure that any sicko who would shoot up a school knows that within seconds, not minutes, they will face certain death.”

The former president called for national concealed carry reciprocity, and said as president he would create a tax credit to reimburse teachers for a concealed-carry firearm and training. He added that he would direct the Food and Drug Administration to investigate if certain drugs “are causing psychotic breaks” and whether transgender hormone treatments increase the risk of violence, reflecting a growing wave of anti-trans rhetoric following the Nashville shooting.

Nashville police initially said the shooter, Audrey Hale, was a 28-year-old woman, and later said Hale was transgender, citing a social media profile in which Hale used masculine pronouns. The Post has not yet confirmed how Hale identified.

Trump was the clear favorite of a majority of attendees at the meeting. When former Arkansas governor Asa Hutchinson – an anti-Trump Republican who will officially launch his presidential bid at the end of the month – closed his speech with a call to move past 2020 and bring new leadership, an attendee shouted out “not you!”

Hours before the doors opened, hundreds of people were already lined up to enter the massive ballroom where the 2024 hopefuls spoke. Many in the line sported “Make America Great Again” hats and other pro-Trump swag, like a shirt that read “even my dog is waiting for Trump 2024” with a drawing of a Labrador retriever with Trump’s signature swoop of hair.

Due to Secret Service security requirements, guns were not allowed in the room where candidates spoke, according to the NRA’s website.

In the hall next door, amid more than 14 acres of guns, bullets, taxidermy and memorabilia, attendees sported red bags of convention swag. Particularly large crowds circled stands featuring AR-15 rifles, the weapon used in many mass killings.

Wandering between exhibits, John Einum – a Trump supporter from Wisconsin wearing an anti-President Biden hat and shirt – said that any other Republicans running for president are not ready.

“He’s been there, he’s done it, he knows who the swamp is, he knows who his enemies are, and he’ll oust them,” he said of Trump. Pence, he said, “is not going to be in the equation.”

Asked about the ongoing string of school shootings, Einum said, “naturally the Democrats always blame the gun, but it’s not the gun, the gun is a tool. It’s like a hammer, a crowbar, a bat, whatever you want to pick for a tool you can injure people.”

The problem, he said, is “society and mental illness, drugs. That’s the root cause of all of it, that’s what they need to address.” If Trump is reelected, he said, he believes the first step to preventing the shootings is “stop the border, and crack down on drugs.”

His wife, Sparky Einum, agreed, and said she likes Trump’s “forthrightness” and that “he doesn’t wishy wash.”

“He just lays it down and tells you right into your face whether you’re good or bad, and I believe in honesty. Sometimes he steps on somebody’s feet, but he’s still honest,” she said.

She said it is important for 2024 candidates to be at the NRA event courting voters.

“Some presidents were hit by bullets and died, but I think, like my husband said, it’s not the gun, and if we don’t have guns to protect ourselves, then they’ll also have the guns and we won’t have anything to protect ourselves,” she said.

“Trump has a sign that says ‘they’re not after him, they’re after us’ – as far as the Democrats go. He’s standing in the way, so to have him back us up on something like this I think is very important, and it encourages people to probably vote for him,” she added.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, and Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) sent in video messages that were played during the event. Hutchinson and technology entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy also appeared in person at the event, as did New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu and South Dakota Gov. Kristi L. Noem.

Noem, who signed an executive order onstage at the event that she said would protect the second amendment from “being infringed upon [by] financial institutions,” said her almost two year old granddaughter already has two guns.

“I want to reassure you, she already has a shotgun and she already has a rifle. And she’s got a little pony named Sparkles too, so the girl is set up,” said Noem.

Other than Trump, Ramaswamy and Noem received the most positive response from the audience here. DeSantis’s video was met with initial applause, but not at the same level.

The NRA spent more than $31 million in support of Trump during his 2016 campaign, and more than $16.5 million on his 2020 reelection campaign, according to OpenSecrets, which tracks campaign finance numbers.

“They better endorse me again, or they’re going to have some explaining to do,” Trump said in his remarks of the group’s endorsement of his past campaigns.

John Feinblatt, the president of Everytown for Gun Safety, said in a statement about the meeting, that the NRA “is past its prime and unable to deliver general election wins.” The group’s endorsement, he argued, “has gone from an asset to an albatross.”

The group, a nonprofit that advocates for gun control, had mobile billboards driving in front of the convention hall that read “NRA EXECS ARE CELEBRATING. KIDS ARE DYING” and “GUNS ARE THE #1 KILLER OF CHILDREN AND TEENS.”

There was little other visible counterprotest. Across the street, just three protesters held anti-gun signs.

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