Heading into a new week, lawmakers still have no sense of what Trump truly wants on guns and other key agenda items — a pattern that leaders of both parties say has hindered their ability to move forward on knotty issues that could benefit from presidential leadership.
After more than a year of the Trump presidency, members of Congress have learned to brace themselves for unpredictable, confusing and often contradictory positions from the commander in chief on issues ranging from health care to immigration to gun rights.
“It’s totally not on a straight line,” Rep. Peter T. King (R-N.Y.) said of Trump’s negotiating style. “It’s zigzagging, something like a pinball machine. But he does move [the ball] down.”
The confusion was particularly evident in the impasse over immigration. As part of an effort to protect young “dreamers” from deportation in exchange for border wall funding, Trump convened a bipartisan meeting at the White House in January.
With cameras rolling, he pledged to sign any compromise lawmakers could craft, only to reject the outcome days later. Trump’s aides ultimately sent to Congress a lengthy wish list of hard-line immigration ideas Democrats would never support.
Now, the urgency in Washington has dissipated with court decisions that effectively keep in place the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which Trump has moved to end and which protects about 700,000 undocumented immigrants who came to the country as children.
“I’m sorry to say, I found the president to be totally unreliable when it came to the DACA issue,” said Sen. Richard J. Durbin (Ill.), the No. 2 Senate Democrat whose efforts to craft an immigration deal with Trump foundered. “It really suggests that his effectiveness is compromised as long as his word is unreliable.”
Trump’s style poses challenges for members of both parties, observers say.
Jim Manley, a lobbyist and former longtime aide to former Senate minority leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), said he found himself feeling sorry for Republican leaders after watching Trump’s televised meeting with lawmakers on guns at the White House last week.
“Democrats have learned not to trust him, and Republicans are walking away wondering what the White House’s bottom lines are,” Manley said. “These kind of meetings just sow confusion and leave people wondering what the president wants.”
Fresh uncertainty about where Trump stands on guns came Friday as White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders fielded questions from reporters about whether the president remains committed to a proposal to raise the age to purchase rifles and shotguns to 21 from 18 — an idea opposed by the NRA.
“Conceptually, he still supports raising the age to 21,” Sanders said. “But he also knows there’s not a lot of broad support for that.”
Sanders then offered a new twist, saying Trump thinks the idea probably has “more potential” at the state level than the federal level. (States already have the ability to set a higher age for such purchases. To date, only two — Illinois and Hawaii — have done so.)
Sanders also stressed that Trump does not necessarily support “universal” background checks, despite his use of that word previously. “Universal” can mean different things to different people, she said.
White House officials and some Trump boosters argue that there’s a method behind what strikes some as madness: sparking conversation among lawmakers, even if it never ends up giving Congress much direction.
“He’s results-oriented. He’ll throw ideas out there,” Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.) said. “And what makes him effective is that he’s not afraid to throw different ideas out there and allow us to debate it.”
Daines called Trump’s style “refreshing.”
“I think what he’s really telling Congress [is], I sign whatever you all pass; you all need to get into a room and weigh all the alternatives and see what you can actually get done,” said Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.).
Others are less charitable, saying that Trump’s flexibility stems from a lack of deeply rooted convictions on many issues.
“He’s going with the television headlines from day to day instead of following a policy strategy,” said one Republican consultant close to the White House, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to offer a more candid assessment. “When he sees backlash from Republican lawmakers and others, he shifts his position and then tries to shift the topic to something else.”
Rick Wilson, a Republican consultant and sharp Trump critic, expressed pessimism about gun-control legislation, blaming Trump’s unreliability.
“You can’t rely on Donald Trump. He is an unreliable narrator of his own story,” Wilson said. “He works off his urges and impulses and not any sort of philosophical framework.”
Some Democrats, however, have found reason for optimism amid Trump’s mixed signals on guns.
“I knew walking out of that meeting that the White House was going to have to dial back some of what the president said,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) said. “The president’s sort of lack of policy foundation allows him to flow where he thinks where the country is going.”
The legislative standoffs on guns and immigration have also underscored a larger reality about Trump’s relationship with Capitol Hill: More than a year into his presidency, he has been unable to score a major legislative victory on any issue that was not already a leading priority of Republican lawmakers.
The GOP-backed tax bill, which Trump successfully championed, was a longtime aim of congressional leaders. And Trump’s only other major victory on Capitol Hill — the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Neil M. Gorsuch — was a result of the political muscle of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who single-handedly left deceased Justice Antonin Scalia’s seat vacant for a year and later changed the chamber’s rules to make the confirmation happen.
On other issues less central to Republican orthodoxy — or that require bipartisan cooperation — the president has struggled.
Besides stalled pushes on immigration and guns, Trump has also proposed significant investment in the country’s ailing infrastructure. But when Trump finally delivered a 53-page plan to Capitol Hill last month, the document was widely panned by Democrats and largely met with silence from the GOP.
In the weeks since, Trump has not held any public events to build support for the initiative and has said little about it.
Trump has sent mixed signals on several other policy fronts as well, including health care. Days before taking office last year, Trump vowed to replace Obama’s signature Affordable Care Act with the goal of “insurance for everybody.”
He later wound up championing GOP plans that would have slashed the number of insured Americans by millions. Trump also initially pledged to leave Medicaid intact but later embraced cuts to the program, which provides health insurance to the poor.
Trump has also repeatedly floated other ideas without following through with Congress. For instance, shortly after his 2016 election, he took to Twitter and threatened the loss of citizenship or jail for people who burn the American flag.
Trump has since talked repeatedly about the importance of respecting the flag, but he has not pushed Congress to advance any legislation imposing consequences for its desecration.
GOP consultant Doug Heye said Trump should be “uniquely situated” to broker deals on issues such as immigration and guns, given his previous career as a New York real estate developer and the trust his staunchest supporters place in him.
“His base trusts him in a way they wouldn’t with a President Rubio or a President Walker,” Heye said, referring to two of Trump’s 2016 Republican primary rivals, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker.
Heye said Trump’s posture on guns has been head-spinning. He noted the rollicking reception Trump received last month at the Conservative Political Action Conference, an annual conclave of the American right, where the NRA is highly popular.
“He went to CPAC and was hailed as a conquering hero, and a week later, he moves to the left of many Democrats on gun control,” Heye said.
Trump’s policy inconsistencies are sure to complicate and even stymie whatever legislative agenda he has this year, leaving a vacuum of policy details that lawmakers then attempt to fill.
On some issues, such as the tax overhaul, congressional Republican leaders were more than content to take the lead. But on other fights, like immigration, GOP lawmakers have consistently asked the White House for direction. On Sunday, senators from both parties implored Trump to take a leading role in pushing for gun-control legislation, arguing that his political cover is vital to passing a bill.
When asked last week to assess Trump’s reliability as a negotiating partner, however, Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Tex.) argued that Congress is the one charged with coming up with policy measures.
“The president has two powers under the Constitution: One is to sign legislation. One is to veto legislation,” he said. “Obviously, he’s important. But the executive is not the primary policymaker. It’s the Congress.”
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who appeared almost giddy at least week’s televised meeting on guns as Trump embraced some of her ideas, said she considered it a “good meeting.”
“But whether it lasts or not, I don’t know,” Feinstein said.
Karoun Demirjian contributed to this report.