Updated at 7:52 p.m. ET
In a freewheeling meeting with lawmakers on efforts to curtail gun violence, President Trump appeared to throw his support behind a number of conflicting measures, including some that are opposed by the powerful gun lobby.
Conservatives and allies of the president were angered by such signals on Wednesday, while others have begun to sound the alarm that Trump is continuing to demonstrate an unfamiliarity with basic policy proposals and a misunderstanding of the legislative process.
During the gathering at the White House of both GOP and Democratic lawmakers, the president showed an openness to expanding background checks, possibly raising the age to purchase AR-15 rifles and also overriding due process, if necessary, to take guns away from mentally ill people or those who have been red-flagged as potential dangers, as the admitted shooter in Parkland, Fla., two weeks ago had been.
Trump bluntly told GOP lawmakers that any effort to include a concealed-carry reciprocity measure with a gun bill would effectively sink its chances — which is because of firm opposition from Senate Democrats. But there were other moments where the president showed a naiveté of the lawmaking process, claiming that it would be easy to get 60 votes for a bill to pass the Senate, suggesting merging some incompatible ideas and chiding lawmakers for being too beholden to the National Rifle Association — a group from which he has enjoyed broad support and with whose leaders he remains particularly chummy.
The fallout from the meeting already has one pro-Trump news website turning on the president.
“Trump the Gun Grabber: Cedes Dems’ Wish List— Bump Stocks, Buying Age, ‘Assault Weapons,’ Background Checks…” was the headline on Breitbart News afterward.
Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn, R-Texas, told reporters the White House meeting did little to advance the debate in Congress over legislation aimed at curbing gun violence.
“It’s still unclear to me what can actually pass, and my experience is these things are harder to do than they sound. So I think we’ll sleep on it and see where we are tomorrow,” he said.
The president repeatedly challenged long-standing GOP orthodoxy on gun policy in Wednesday’s meeting, leaving legislators bewildered by what happens next and what, precisely, Trump actually supports.
“I think everybody is trying to absorb what we just heard,” Cornyn said. “He’s a unique president and I think if he was focused on a specific piece of legislation rather than a grab bag of ideas then I think he could have a lot of influence, but right now we don’t have that.”
Emphasis on comprehensive legislation
Trump underscored that he wants a bill that will address many issues he believes has contributed to mass shootings over the past few decades, ranging from background check loopholes to mental health legislation.
“We can really get there but we have to do it,” Trump said at the outset of the meeting.
There are two major bipartisan Senate bills the president seized upon and even suggested could be merged. First, he voiced support for the effort by Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Pat Toomey, R-Pa., which failed in 2013 in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, that would have expanded background checks.
Trump expressed disbelief that such a bill didn’t pass after such a devastating attack that killed 20 young children and six adults. And one reason it failed, he chided, was that then-President Barack Obama didn’t sufficiently support it — despite the fact that Obama spent considerable time and political capital to back its passage, calling it “a pretty shameful day for Washington” when it fell just six votes short of the 60 needed to advance in the Senate.
Trump asked what that bill did to address raising the age from 18 to 21 for some firearm purchases like AR-15s, which have been used in several deadly shootings. Toomey responded that it didn’t currently address it, to which Trump retorted that was because “you’re afraid of the NRA.”
Toomey spokesman Steve Kelly later pointed out in a statement that the NRA downgraded Toomey’s rating and refused to back his re-election bid after his bill with Manchin and that he has never taken any money from the group since becoming a senator, which “demonstrated that he is not afraid of the NRA or any other special interest group.”
The second bill Trump signaled his support for is the “Fix NICS” bill proposed by Cornyn and Chris Murphy, D-Conn., which would improve reporting to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System and, they hope, flag people who shouldn’t be able to purchase guns.
Murphy, who has been a leading voice for gun control especially after the 2012 elementary school shooting in Newtown, Conn., complained that they haven’t been able to get anywhere significant in the past few years because “the gun lobby has a veto power.”
“If all we end up doing is the stuff that the gun industry supports, then this just isn’t worth it,” Murphy said.
He also argued that implementing universal background checks is critical, citing statistics that gun murders in states with such checks have dropped by over one-third. Currently, background checks at gun shows and for Internet sales aren’t federally mandated. The NRA has opposed such an expansion.
Later on, Trump again posited he would be willing to buck the NRA if necessary — despite the fact he has repeatedly assured the lobbying group he is a loyal ally, had lunch over the weekend with the group’s leaders and said earlier in the meeting that he is a “big fan” of the group.
“They have great power over you people. They have less power over me,” Trump said, latter adding that, “Some of you people are petrified of the NRA. You can’t be petrified.”
Trump also suggested merging the assault weapons ban bill that Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., has proposed with the Manchin-Toomey and Cornyn-Murphy bills.
“Dianne, if you could add what you have also — and I think you can — into the bill,” Trump said at one point.
Any effort to ban assault weapons or AR-15 rifles would be a nonstarter with the NRA and Republicans.
Feinstein was visibly amused, exclaiming, “Joe, are you ready?” as the West Virginia senator hung his head.
And Trump also pushed back against House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La. — who was shot and critically wounded last June during a congressional baseball practice — when he talked about the House’s efforts to attach concealed-carry reciprocity across state lines to the Cornyn-Murphy bill.
“Steve, it’s very hard to add the one thing that you want. … Let’s consider it for a separate bill,” the president said.
“Take the gun first, go through due process second”
One of the more surprising stances Trump took appeared to flout due process for gun owners.
After Vice President Pence began to talk about how he and the president had conversations with governors earlier this week, Trump interjected that people should “take the firearms first and then go to court” if there is a concern about someone having a gun and potentially being unstable or likely to commit violence.
“A lot of times by the time you go to court, it takes so long to go to court to get the due process procedures, I like taking the guns early,” Trump continued.
The president cited multiple warnings that lawmakers had about the Parkland shooter that went ignored by law enforcement.
“Take the gun first, go through due process second,” Trump said.
Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., a frequent Trump critic, was not amused by such a suggestion.
“Strong leaders don’t automatically agree with the last thing that was said to them. We have the Second Amendment and due process of law for a reason,” Sasse said in a statement after the meeting. “We’re not ditching any Constitutional protections simply because the last person the President talked to today doesn’t like them.”
At last week’s Conservative Political Action Conference, Trump warned the crowd that it was Democrats who would “take away your Second Amendment … which we will never allow that.”
Doubling down on arming teachers
Trump did reiterate his support for one measure the NRA has heavily backed — arming some teachers and school personnel, ending gun-free school zones as a way to solidify school security.
“You’ve got to have defense too,” the president said in his opening remarks. “You can’t just be sitting ducks, and that’s exactly what we’ve allowed people in these buildings to be.”
“They’re not going to come in when they know they’re going to come out dead,” Trump later added, though he did seem to suggest it could be an issue left up to individual states.
Some lawmakers, such as Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., and Rep. John Rutherford, R-Fla., spoke in support of such a proposal. Others, including Rep. Ted Deutch, D-Fla., who represents Parkland, said he and many others oppose such measures.
Will any of this matter?
While the meeting did show that there could be some consensus reached on these issues, Trump has often thrown his support behind measures, only to see those endorsements walked back later by White House staff or contradicted by the president himself. That’s on top of the fact that the president often appears highly influenced by the last person he talked to about an issue. So anything Trump appeared to get behind or suggest at the meeting should be taken with a grain of salt.
A similar bipartisan meeting happened in early January on efforts to field a comprehensive immigration bill that would address the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. In that meeting, Trump suggested he would sign any bill lawmakers sent him and that he would take any heat and expected backlash from the anti-immigration wing, which has been a major bloc of support for the president.
But later Trump insisted that any bill contain not only funding for his border wall but cuts to legal immigration, which was a nonstarter with Democrats and even some Republicans. Ultimately, many proposals failed earlier this month in the Senate.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. — a sometimes critic, sometimes ally of Trump’s — expressed some skepticism after the meeting and also issued a warning.
“If the president has another one of these sessions and he doesn’t follow through, it’s going to hurt him. It’s going to hurt the Republican Party,” Graham told CNN. “I’ve seen this movie before. If it ends up like immigration he’s done himself a lot of harm.”
Cornyn also said many of Trump’s comments would not sway the debate. “I wouldn’t confuse what he said with what can actually pass. I don’t expect to see any great divergence in terms of people’s views on the Second Amendment, for example.”
Cornyn is still supporting his incremental, bipartisan bill co-authored with Murphy, the Connecticut Democrat, to improve the current background check system. But without broad agreement in the Senate, the legislation could easily get bogged down in more controversial gun debates.
“It’s pretty clear to me that we’re not going to get that consent agreement, so that means [Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell] is going to have to make a decision on how to proceed and how much floor time he’s willing to commit to this,” Cornyn said.
Earlier in the week Cornyn expressed hope that Congress could act on the bill this week, but he said Wednesday it is clear that will not happen. Like many lawmakers, he was candid that this gun debate may again yield no tangible legislative results.
“I think the deadline is going to be the next mass shooting. It’s only a matter of time, and if we don’t do something I think there’s going to be a heavy price to pay,” he said.
The Texas Republican added: “I don’t want to meet another family who lost a loved one in a mass shooting and think we could have done something which would have prevented this, but we didn’t do it because we didn’t act.”