Not even two weeks ago, President Trump appeared to buck the National Rifle Association — publicly endorsing Democratic-friendly gun-control ideas while mocking other Republicans as “petrified” of the powerful firearms lobby.
“They have great power over you people,” Trump said on Feb. 28, referring to the NRA while addressing a group of lawmakers at the White House. “They have less power over me.”
But now Trump has retreated, putting forward a modest package of gun-safety measures this week that has none of the provisions opposed by the NRA that he seemed to back days earlier. The shift provides another example of the strong influence wielded by the NRA both at the White House and on Capitol Hill, where most lawmakers remain opposed to significant policy changes in the wake of the shooting massacre that killed 17 at a Parkland, Fla., high school last month.
“I think we could all see it coming. I wish the president had televised the meeting with the NRA like he televised the meeting with us,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) said Monday, referring to a March 1 huddle between Trump and top officials at the gun rights group. “Clearly, the NRA was more persuasive than I was.”
In the face of such criticism, Trump defended his plan in a series of tweets Monday morning.
“Very strong improvement and strengthening of background checks will be fully backed by White House. Legislation moving forward. Bump Stocks will soon be out. Highly trained expert teachers will be allowed to conceal carry, subject to State Law. Armed guards OK, deterrent!” Trump wrote in one Twitter message.
White House officials said Trump’s official gun plan was drafted within the confines of what Congress will allow — a notable contrast to Trump’s “I alone can fix it” image as someone who could single-handedly cut through Washington gridlock.
Administration officials also disputed that Trump’s plan amounts to a reversal of his positions since that February meeting, when the president surprised lawmakers of both parties by appearing to back proposals to raise the purchase age for AR-15s and similar types of rifles and to expand background checks. He also declared at that meeting that law enforcement officials should “take the guns first, go through due process second” for those suspected of mental illness.
“He hasn’t backed away from these things at all,” White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said during a contentious back-and-forth with reporters Monday. “But he can’t make them happen with a broad stroke of the pen. You have to have some congressional component to do some of these things, and without that support, it’s not as possible.”
Publicly, Republican senators had dismissed Trump’s embrace of Democratic-friendly gun measures as the negotiating tactic of a businessman who wanted to hear from all sides before coming to a decision. His defenders on Capitol Hill said much the same Monday, arguing that Trump’s plan was crafted in political reality, considering the composition of Congress.
“I’ve called the meeting we had at the White House on TV really more of a brainstorming session. It was not a legislative strategy session,” Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Tex.) said Monday. “I think as the president and the White House has talked to Congress, they found out what is achievable and what’s not.”
Yet Vice President Pence spoke with a number of Senate Republicans who privately raised serious concerns about what Trump said at the gun summit, according to one White House official who was not authorized to talk on the record and so spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Sen. Steve Daines (Mont.) was among the GOP lawmakers who reached out to the administration with worries about what was said, conveying his concerns to the White House’s legislative staff.
“We really reengaged and reemphasized the points I made to the president in that meeting: First thing we need to do to make kids safe is to make our schools safe,” Daines said Monday. “I’m pleased to see that he’s moved away from a focus on gun control and now focused on stopping people who have a homicidal intent.”
At a meeting on March 1, NRA lobbyist Chris Cox told Trump that some of his ideas, particularly raising the age limit to buy a semiautomatic rifle from 18 to 21, wouldn’t pass and that raising the age wouldn’t stop crimes, according to people briefed on the meeting. Cox also said the background check legislation being supported by the White House would go too far, these people said.
Trump saw the arguments as convincing, said two people who later spoke to him. The meeting was warm, these people said, with the president telling Cox that he valued the NRA and wanted to be on the same page.
Cox and NRA President Wayne LaPierre, who met with Trump earlier, made clear to the president that the NRA supported him and did not want to be at odds.
The president was also taken aback by how many GOP lawmakers told him that his proposals were unlikely to pass, two senior administration officials said. He later told others in the White House that he wanted to support only legislation that could pass.
One senior administration official said Trump was never determined to pass everything he proposed or seemed to suggest in the bipartisan summit but likes to publicly gauge what others are thinking.
House Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) told Trump that broad gun laws were not going to pass, according to a senior administration official. A number of senior aides also told the president that there were not enough votes on the Hill to raise the purchase age for some guns, the official said.
“At first, he really wanted to do it . . . everyone was telling him, embrace this moment,” one Trump adviser said. But now “he is telling people how supportive the NRA has been to him. He knows they are an important ally.”
Another senior administration official said that Trump “does things on the fly” in sessions like the one on guns and that they aren’t real promises or formal positions. His team was already drafting legislative proposals that mirrored what eventually came out, this official said.
Now, the Trump administration is focused on two main pieces of legislation: a bill to improve the federal background check database and a measure to shore up safety at schools, including grants to fund violence-prevention training for teachers and students. Both are broadly popular on Capitol Hill, although a handful of Republican senators are objecting to speedy passage of the background check bill.
The White House also wants states to pass bills for “risk-protection orders,” which allow law enforcement to take guns away from people considered a public threat, and it is establishing a Federal Commission on School Safety, to be chaired by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, that will explore possible solutions.
Trump’s plan does not include an endorsement of a bipartisan measure written by Sens. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) and Patrick J. Toomey (R-Pa.) to expand background checks to firearms sales at gun shows and online purchases, confusing key lawmakers who believed that Trump would get on board with the bill.
“Why did he talk about it so favorably in the public meeting?” Manchin asked of Trump and his bill. “I don’t think the president seemed to be concerned about that, but I’m sure some of the more politically astute staff may be.”
Despite the White House’s comments that it was working within the realm of the possible, some proposals in Trump’s plan aren’t politically achievable in Congress. One of the most controversial would give “rigorous firearms training” to some teachers to protect students — an idea that would struggle mightily to pass.
“I don’t think there’s a lot of support for that,” Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), a reliable ally of the White House, said Monday. “I just don’t think that there’s a move to arm teachers. I’m not particularly opposed to that, but there would have to be tremendous training and tremendous effort to make that work.”
Philip Rucker contributed to this report.