President Donald Trump, carefully attuned to the emotional national debate unfolding after last week’s school shooting in Florida, signaled Thursday that he is willing to pressure Congress to take action on guns.
He faces stiff odds. Changing the nation’s gun laws poses a test of leadership for a President with fractured relations on Capitol Hill, where gun bills have withered and died in the wake of other horrific school shootings.
While it could be an opportunity for Trump to expand his appeal beyond his conservative base, a feat he’s seldom tried since taking office more than a year ago, it also was clear Thursday he is far from settling on a clear set of ideas to address the crisis.
Fueled by the belief he can succeed where his predecessors could not, Trump has told his advisers in recent days that he’s willing to break with the powerful gun lobby if it means he can claim progress on an issue that enjoys widespread national support, according to people familiar with the conversations. He’s heard from friends that he could be the President to make lasting change, even as others in his extended orbit – including his sons and executives at the National Rifle Association – have urged him not to push strict new gun laws.
Whether Trump possesses the political sway or know-how to convince lawmakers in his own Republican Party to go along with him remains an open question, as is his willingness to buck the NRA.
In his public remarks Thursday, the President offered a wide range of ideas and even suggested the NRA may need to change some of its stances. The NRA quickly said its views weren’t shifting.
“I want to end the problem. I don’t want to have it where this happens again. And unless we’re going to have an offensive capability, it’s going to happen again and again and again, and it’s going to be the same old story, and people are going to be sitting around tables talking,” he said at the White House, sitting around a table in the Roosevelt Room with law enforcement and education officials.
Trump has told aides over the past days that he believes the country has reached an inflection point on guns and he wants to be in front of it, according to people who have spoken with him. He sought to harness the moment during his own event in the White House State Dining Room on Wednesday, inviting people affected by school shootings to share their stories as news cameras rolled nearby.
Capturing emotional nuance has not generally been within Trump’s wheelhouse, and his buoyant thumbs-up during a meeting last week at the Broward County Sheriff’s Office was maligned, even by some of his aides. This time, advisers sought to coach him, providing a handwritten list of instructions that included asking participants, “What can we do to help you feel safe?” and the simple mantra: “I hear you.”
Initially meant to last just 10 minutes, the televised portion went on for more than an hour as each participant described, sometimes in wrenching detail, their experiences. It was the President’s own idea to open the entire listening session to the press, despite some aides who were eager to truncate the open portion of the event, according to officials familiar with its planning.
Trump had used a similar tactic before, when he conducted an entire bipartisan meeting on immigration in front of cameras. The President was pleased at the coverage of that event, which he felt demonstrated his leadership skills.
But viewing coverage of his listening session on Wednesday evening, Trump grew frustrated that his single remark in support of arming some teachers and coaches with guns was consuming much of the oxygen, instead of the emotional comments from the survivors, families and teachers in attendance.
Trump vented Thursday morning on Twitter, releasing a deluge that did little to clarify which ideas he wants lawmakers to pursue. Later in the day, during his roundtable discussion with officials, the President appeared to support a battery of ideas.
He floated giving teachers who undergo firearms training “a little bit of a bonus.” He insisted that mental health institutions be bolstered so that “sickos” like the Florida shooter can be treated. And he raised the idea – opposed, for now, by the NRA – of increasing the minimum age for purchasing semiautomatic rifles from 18 to 21.
In his session with law enforcement officials, Trump suggested the NRA may drop its opposition to the age increase. “I don’t think I’ll be going up against them. They’re going to do what’s right,” he said. “They’re very close to me. I’m close to them.”
Moments later, the group said its position on age limits “has not changed.”
It was evidence that the NRA will continue resisting efforts to stiffen gun laws, even as the President – who received millions of dollars in support from the organization during the 2016 campaign – calls for some changes.
One White House official said Thursday that Trump is not concerned about the NRA’s opposition to some of his proposals, believing the organization will continue backing him because of his broad support for the Second Amendment.
“We don’t expect to agree with the NRA on every single issue,” principal deputy press secretary Raj Shah said at the White House.
Trump’s scattershot Twitter stream and listening session reflected the conversations the President is having with some members of Congress, a White House official said, including talks with House Speaker Paul Ryan in Florida on Sunday. Trump has also phoned Republican lawmakers this week, conveying that he wants to do something on guns, though has yet to identify an area of focus.
“He will push Congress to do something,” the senior White House official said.
Speaking at the White House, Shah said the President is still in the “listening stage.”
“He is going to come forward later on with something a little more concrete,” Shah said.
The President is being urged by his aides to lead on this issue, especially given the potential for him to do more than his predecessor, President Barack Obama, who was unable to substantively address the gun issue in office.
“Unlike for many years where people sitting in my position did not take action – they didn’t take proper action, they took no action at all – we’re going to take action,” Trump said Thursday.
The senior White House official said the President will likely meet with lawmakers when they return to Washington to further the conversation on guns. That meeting could come as early as next week, likely as part of a broader discussion on other legislation.
CNN’s Abby Phillip contributed to this report.