The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump’s gun meeting went off the rails quickly

President Trump on Feb. 28 told Sens. Patrick J. Toomey (R-Pa.) and Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) that they are “afraid of the NRA.” (Video: The Washington Post)

Less than half an hour into his meeting with lawmakers on Wednesday, President Trump urged the illegal confiscation of guns, told a Republican (to his face) that he was scared of the NRA and threw a series of wrenches into Congress's legislative strategy on guns.

In other words, another meeting with Trump.

This was the second time in 2018 that Trump has allowed the media to film a meeting with lawmakers — the first was on immigration — but the result was quite familiar: A president who seems to not know exactly what he wants to do tends to insert strange comments into the very serious business of legislating. Trump also repeatedly instructed lawmakers on whether to combine specific gun proposals or not — regularly drawing noncommittal or even exasperated responses.

One of the strangest moments came when he argued that the alleged shooter in the tragedy in Parkland, Fla. — about whom there were numerous red flags — should have had his guns taken away, regardless of what the law allowed.

“I think they should have taken them away, whether they had the right or not,” Trump said. He added later, in case there was any doubt: “Take the guns first, go through due process second.”

In an exchange with Sen. Patrick J. Toomey (R-Pa.), Trump seemed to not know what was contained in the bill Toomey proposed with Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) after the 2012 tragedy at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn. Trump asked whether the bill, which was focused on background checks, would have raised the age limit for buying assault weapons.

When Toomey said it did not, Trump shot back: “You know why? Because you're afraid of the NRA.”

The rejoinder was especially odd, given that Toomey was one of few Republicans who supported his background checks bill, which failed, over the objections of the NRA. It also happens to confirm the argument Democrats regularly make against Republicans. Trump would later go on to say some of the members in the meeting were “petrified” of the NRA.

“They have great power over you people,” Trump said. “They have less power over me.”

The exchange also highlighted Trump's vacillations on policy. Throughout the meeting, he suggested that lawmakers either include or exclude specific proposals from other bills. When Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Tex.) talked about his bipartisan bill to improve information-sharing in the background checks system, Trump suggested he should “add everything on to it and maybe change the title.” When Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) talked about protecting against domestic abusers getting guns, Trump seemed to like the idea. “If you could add that into this bill,” Trump said. “Can you add some of the things? Can you add what Amy and [Sen.] Dianne [Feinstein] have?”

When Trump proposed adding Feinstein's assault weapons ban to the Toomey and Manchin bill — something Republicans are decidedly not calling for — Feinstein and Klobuchar couldn't help themselves:

One thing Trump wanted taken out of the bill, though, was House Majority Whip Steve Scalise's (R-La.) push for creating reciprocity for concealed carry so that permits would be valid across state lines. “If you add concealed carry to this bill,” Trump assured him, “you'll never get it passed.”

Cornyn's rather honest response to the whole thing pretty much said it all:

Credit where credit is due for the White House holding these meetings in the open. It's even quite possible they will even facilitate some bipartisan action. But Trump's odd comments regularly seemed to confuse those present. And yet again, we have a window into the bizarre negotiating style that we usually only hear about secondhand.