Donald Trump billed himself as a leader of bravura and defiance armed with supernatural political skills that could rewrite the script of crippled Washington.
“Nobody knows the system better than me, which is why I alone can fix it,” Trump famously said in accepting the GOP nomination in 2016.
Yet that fearlessness was missing in action Monday when the White House blamed the deadlock of that same system for the paucity of his ambition as it rolled out its response to the Florida high school massacre.
“The President as you know doesn’t have the ability to create federal law,” White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said, offering a lesson in the Constitution for reporters and insisting the President was not backing away from more significant steps.
“You can’t just decide that you want laws to pass and it happens,” Sanders said, arguing that there was simply not sufficient support in the Republican-led Congress for significant gun control measures.
In effect, Sanders was arguing that Trump wanted to do more, but can’t.
Yet just a few weeks ago, at a staggering televised meeting at the White House, Trump mocked Republican senators for being scared of the National Rifle Association, passionately pushed his plan to raise the legal age requirement for buying long guns, and suggested a big, comprehensive guns bill. He even seemed open talking about a Democratic push for an assault weapons ban and said police should be able to take away guns from mentally ill people even without due process, causing his GOP colleagues to blanch.
“Some of you people are petrified of the NRA. You can’t be petrified,” Trump said, before telling his flabbergasted guests: “I’d rather have you come down on the strong side instead of the weak side.”
It now appears that meeting was just for show. For one thing, none of the measures that Trump proposed on Monday are strongly opposed by the NRA.
The new Trump plan calls for training teachers to carry firearms, modest fixes to the background check system, and reforms of mental health care. But he kicked his call to raise the age requirement for certain firearms to 21 into the long grass of a commission chaired by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, despite decrying such panels on Saturday as just “talk, talk, talk.”
Sanders rejected the idea that Trump’s plan was modest, meek and hardly the bold action of a man who had vowed to be a leader like no other.
“You guys continue to misunderstand and misrepresent the comments that I’m making,” Sanders complained to reporters, before offering a remarkably orthodox Washington explanation of the actions of a president who is usually prides himself on rejecting the tropes of establishment politics.
“I’m saying that the President is pushing forward on things that we know have broad-based support and that we can immediately get done, while, at the same time, we’re looking at the best way forward to push these other things through,” Sanders said.
When she was challenged on the fact that a majority of the public supports Trump’s proposal on raising age requirements, Sanders sniffed at opinion surveys and metaphorically threw up her hands.
“He’s talking about Congress, who actually has the ability to make law, not online polls,” she said.
It was significant, however, that the gun announcements were made in a press release on Sunday night and relayed at the press secretary’s briefing and did not merit the heft of a personal presidential appearance that is standard for major policy proposals.
In some ways, Sanders was making a valid political point. Given Republican majorities in Congress and the midterm election sensitivities of Senate Democrats running in red states, the time is hardly ripe for a major gun bill – or a less ambitious one that would tinker with age requirements.
But she also implicitly offered the answer to the question that has hung in the air ever since the extraordinary outpouring of emotion and activism by surviving students of the massacre : Would the President wager a little of the political capital he enjoys with his political base to give cover to Republican lawmakers who worry about tough votes on gun control?
Taking the heat
The limited scope of the Trump school safety plan and the President’s unwillingness to challenge the difficult math in Congress also undercut his complaints that he was far better at shaking congressional paralysis than his predecessors.
“You went through a lot of Presidents and you didn’t get it done. You have a different President,” Trump said in his meeting with lawmakers.
“It’s time that a President stepped up, and we haven’t had them.”
The gap between expectations and delivery on the guns meeting mirrored another surreal reality show style-event that the President staged on immigration, when he came close to proposing the kind of “comprehensive” immigration bill that would outrage the conservative grass roots.
“I’ll take the heat, I don’t care,” Trump said.
But the evidence since both meetings suggests that far from sticking his neck out to pass legislation that requires him to put some political skin in the game, his first reaction when faced with a political roadblock is to step back.
After all, major legislation that has passed during his presidency – like tax reform for instance – was largely driven from inside Congress, with the President offering support but not dictating the shape of proposed laws.
The President who shocked the world by being willing to meet North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, and by demanding tariffs against US allies, doesn’t seem to have the same zeal when it comes to arguing and issue that risks angering his own grass roots supporters.
That might make Washington more skeptical of the freewheeling, unscripted headline grabbing reality-show style television spectaculars that Trump seems to relish – but have now twice been proven not to shape policy.