President Donald Trump returns to Georgia on Friday for the first time since his election with a whirlwind visit that includes a speech to the National Rifle Association’s convention in downtown Atlanta and a fundraiser for Republican Karen Handel’s campaign for Congress.
Scores of protesters are ready to welcome the president with demonstrations across town targeting the Republican’s embrace of the gun rights group and eager to remind him of the disparaging remarks he made in January about Atlanta.
Trump’s arrival comes at a fraught time. A day shy of the 100-day mark in his presidency, Trump faces sagging approval ratings and has few significant legislative accomplishments. His promise to build a wall on the U.S. border with Mexico is stalled, and his first stab at a health care overhaul failed. His executive orders on immigration are tied up in the courts.
The president and his advisers cast Saturday’s mark as an arbitrary milestone and criticism of his presidency as “fake news.” The White House points to his appointment of Neil Gorsuch to the U.S. Supreme Court, a raft of executive orders aiming to cut regulations and the outline of a broad tax-cut plan as early successes.
His keynote address to the NRA — he will be the first sitting president to address the group since Ronald Reagan — also comes as Georgia wrestles with a controversial proposal to expand gun rights. Gov. Nathan Deal is considering legislation that would allow people with permits to carry concealed firearms on most parts of public college campuses.
The governor vetoed a similar proposal last year after lawmakers defied his personal request for exemptions, but Deal appears more likely to sign this year’s measure into law after legislators acceded to his demands. He faces a new onslaught from gun control advocates and other critics urging him to trash this proposal as well.
‘How dare you’
The president’s speech will be held at the Georgia World Congress Center, in the heart of the 5th Congressional District. That matters because it’s the same part of town that Trump derided as a “crime infested” area that is in “horrible shape” in a Jan. 14 tweet barrage.
The invective targeted Georgia U.S. Rep. John Lewis after he said Trump would not be a “legitimate” president, and the congressman announced he would boycott the inauguration.
Republican leaders largely dismissed the tweets, but Democrats and many residents of the district responded with an incredulous “how dare you” after the rant. In a telling move, Lewis plans to headline a rally Saturday outside the NRA event.
More than 80,000 people and hundreds of exhibitors are expected to pack the four-day event, which kicked off Thursday with an opening dinner. And a list of political heavyweights, including Georgia U.S. Sen. David Perdue and Texas U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, are set to address the crowd Friday.
At the center of the spectacle will be Trump, once an advocate of stricter gun limits who emerged as a stalwart supporter of gun rights in the presidential race. The NRA rewarded him with an endorsement months before he locked up the GOP presidential nomination — and firepower from a wave of ads ahead of the November vote.
Trump is likely to lay out his support for expanding Second Amendment protections, pleasing some of his most stalwart supporters.
“There is absolutely no slacking of the interest that Trump has generated and no dissent about his forward push to Congress to perform,” said Harry Abrams, a Cherokee County Republican. “That may be the biggest thing: People expect Congress to back the president and not stall his agenda.”
Outside the convention center, demonstrators aim to send a pointed message to Trump and NRA members.
A “die-in” featuring 93 people lying on the grassy turf at Woodruff Park will represent what organizers say is the number of people who die daily in the U.S. from gun violence. The protesters will also demand more public meetings with GOP lawmakers.
“The battle to hold our elected officials accountable is just beginning,” said Caroline Stover, an organizer of the Resist Trump Tuesday movement in Georgia. “We will continue to demand a town hall meeting with our Georgia members of Congress and insist on their support for issues we care about.”
The NRA event could also supercharge the debate over the so-called “campus carry” measure awaiting Deal’s approval. Conservatives last year passed a measure that would allow more guns on public college campuses, but they refused to include the exceptions to the expansion that Deal sought.
Deal issued a scathing veto of the measure that invoked an opinion by the now-deceased Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia describing colleges as “sanctuaries of learning where firearms have not been allowed.”
This year, lawmakers approved a measure that agreed to Deal’s demands to bar guns from on-campus child care facilities, faculty and administrative office space, and disciplinary meetings. It also would exempt classrooms where high school students attend college campuses, as well as dormitories, sorority and fraternity houses, and athletic events.
The measure’s critics hope a grammatical error in the bill could prevent Deal from signing it, and they are eager to remind the governor of his stinging veto and the opposition from the University System of Georgia and several Republican lawmakers who represent college campuses.
“We’re hoping he’ll stay true to his words and his strong commitment to education in the state of Georgia,” said Mallory Harris, a University of Georgia student who organized rallies against the legislation. “Overwhelmingly, the people who are most familiar with campus safety do not support this bill.”
The governor remains tight-lipped about the measure, although he appears likely to wait until after the NRA meeting to take action. He did, however, suggest it was unfair to compare the two measures.
“The bill that I was sent this year on campus carry is significantly different than the bill I received last year,” he said Thursday after a bill signing ceremony, twice more saying the measure awaiting his signature is vastly changed from the legislation he nixed.
“It’s a very different piece of legislation,” Deal said, “but I haven’t made a final decision yet.”