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.
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, in order to take guns away from mentally ill people or those who had 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 effective sink its changes — which is due to firm opposition from Senate Democrats. But there were other moments where the president showed a naivite of the lawmaking process, suggesting 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's enjoyed broad support and remains particularly chummy with its leaders.
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 today'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 than 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 bills the president seized upon, and even suggested that they could be merged. First, he voiced support 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 chided that one reason it failed was because then-President Obama didn't sufficiently support it — despite the fact that the Democrat 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 votes needed to advance in the Senate.
Trump asked what the 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 it was because "you're afraid of the NRA."
The second bill Trump signaled his support for is the "Fix NICS" bill proposed by Sens. John Cornyn, R-Texas, and Chris Murphy, D-Conn., which would improve reporting to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System which they hope will 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," the Connecticut Democrat said.
He also argued that implementing universal background checks was critical, citing statistics that gun murders in states with such checks have dropped by over one-third. Currently, background checks at gun shows and on 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's repeatedly assured the lobbying group he's a loyal ally, had lunch over the weekend with the group's leaders and said earlier in the meeting that he's 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."
"Take the gun first, go through due process second"
One of the more surprising stances Trump took appeared to flaunt due process for gun owners — and one that is sure to enrage the NRA.
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 critic of the president, 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., Rep. John Rutherford, R-Fla., and House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., who was critically shot last June during a congressional baseball practice, spoke out in support of such a proposal. Others, including Rep. Ted Deutsch, 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 in early January on efforts to field a comprehensive immigration bill which would address the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) 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 non-starter 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 — 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 Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., 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," he said.
Earlier in the week Cornyn has expressed hope that Congress could act on the bill this week, but he said today 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.
He 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."