President Donald Trump and Sen. Dianne Feinstein share a moment during a meeting with bipartisan members of Congress at the Cabinet Room of the White House.
Alex Wong/Getty Images
At the very end of a lengthy, televised White House meeting on gun legislation, during which President Trump seemed to endorse just about every idea that Democratic attendees had thrown at him, California Sen. Dianne Feinstein tried to press her luck. She asked Trump what to do about “weapons of war,” the phrase Democrats are using interchangeably for “assault weapons” like the AR-15. Though the president wouldn’t outright support a ban on such weapons, he did give a fatherly look and finger wag to Sens. Joe Manchin and Pat Toomey and instruct them “to discuss that with Dianne.” Not for the first time in the meeting, Feinstein, one of the most ardent gun control supporters in the Senate, let slip a beaming smile.
Maybe the president wouldn’t endorse Feinstein’s idea in the televised meeting. But over the course of an hour, he went much further toward gun restrictions than Republicans were comfortable with. He rejected Republicans’ procedural strategy, voiced by Texas Sen. John Cornyn, to quickly pass the modest Fix NICS bill, which would incentivize better reporting of information into the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, and then to have a broader debate over other gun measures. Trump pushed for a single comprehensive bill, “instead of 15 different bills and nobody knows what’s happening.” When Cornyn, sitting just to Trump’s right, said he’d be happy to do so if the package could get 60 votes, Trump suggested that could be done “easily.”
Cornyn, as he told reporters upon returning to the Capitol, tried his best to keep a “poker face” throughout. He did not always succeed.
One of the big unanswered questions over the past week has been what Trump means when he calls for a beefed-up system of background checks. Does he just want Fix NICS, which would shore up logistical failures but not extend background checks to new categories of gun sales? Or does he want an expansion of background checks beyond that? The latter would mean that he was looking for something like the proposal offered by Manchin and Toomey to expand background checks to all commercial sales, including those at gun shows and online.
On Wednesday, the president admitted that he didn’t know much about the Manchin–Toomey bill. It showed. When Toomey mentioned how their amendment had failed to reach 60 votes in 2013, Trump suggested that was because he didn’t have much “presidential backup.” That’s not remotely true; the angriest President Obama ever appeared in public was during a press conference following Manchin–Toomey’s failure —four months after the fatal shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Toomey tried to gently correct Trump on this point, but Manchin, up for re-election in a state where Trump is vastly popular and Obama wasn’t, affirmed the president’s recollection. Manchin wasn’t the only Democrat who resigned himself to a certain amount of strategic flattery in the meeting. After all, if the president believes he could best President Obama by passing expanded background checks, let him believe it. And Trump thought Manchin and Toomey’s idea was just swell.
What made the meeting so remarkable was that Trump didn’t just support Democratic priorities, he also repeatedly rejected the negotiating position of House Republicans. Conservatives in the House want Fix NICS linked to concealed carry reciprocity, the National Rifle Association’s No. 1 legislative priority. (Another delight of the meeting was Trump telling legislators—“you people”—several times to stop being so scared of the NRA. Republicans take offense at the suggestion that the NRA dictates their positions.) When House Majority Whip Steve Scalise emphasized this approach to the president, Trump told him they’d never get a gun bill passed with concealed carry reciprocity attached, and to try it as a separate bill instead. Trump also pushed legislators to raise the minimum age for purchasing all weapons to 21, a change that is anathema to the NRA and that most Republicans in Congress are loath to support.
The most striking moment in the meeting, though, came when Vice President Mike Pence was describing “red flag” laws in certain states that allow law enforcement to temporarily take away weapons from someone deemed a threat. Pence noted that you first need a court order to do so, respecting due process. Trump offered an alternative recommendation.
“Take the guns first,” he said, “go through due process second.” If Barack Obama had said such a thing, Republicans would have plotted a military coup. When asked about the remark afterward, most Republican senators did their best to maintain a straight face while noting that they disagreed with the president on that particular policy.
But doesn’t this whole routine sound all too familiar? In January, Trump held a similar meeting on immigration and similarly committed himself to various Democratic proposals. He told lawmakers then, as he did Wednesday, that he’d sign what they presented to him. After that meeting, conservative members and advisers got to Trump, and the White House moved much further to the right in its demands. And so Democratic staffers watching Wednesday’s meeting were reasonably cautious.
“It’s a carbon copy of the immigration meeting,” one senior Democratic aide told me. “Let’s hope the following days are different this time around.” Another Democratic aide noted that “a lot of very unlikely things will have to happen before Mitch McConnell, Paul Ryan, and Donald Trump deliver on this. Be wary.”
Some Democrats in attendance, like Connecticut Sen. Chris Murphy, had much the same cautious message afterward: Let’s see if he sticks to it for more than a few hours and is willing to lean on Republicans to push a strong gun control package through Congress.
Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who got a hearty endorsement from Trump for her bill to restrict gun sales to domestic abusers, thought this meeting was different from the immigration summit. “You saw the president clearly saying not once, not twice, not three times but, like, 10 times that he wanted to see a strong universal background check bill,” she said. “He didn’t mince words about it. So I don’t understand how, then, he could back away from that.”
This could be a failure of imagination on Sen. Klobuchar’s part.
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Jim Newell is a Slate staff writer.