Trump Focuses on Shooting Fallout — but Challenges Abound

Lack of common ground, White House could stop gun-access bill

Students and supporters protest against gun violence with a lie-in outside the White House in February last year, after 17 people were killed in a shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Students and supporters protest against gun violence with a lie-in outside the White House in February last year, after 17 people were killed in a shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted February 21, 2018 at 5:00am

The White House is eager to portray Donald Trump as working to protect American students after the Florida high school massacre, but the president himself showed Tuesday why his staff’s intended messaging may fall flat.

West Wing aides have scheduled a series of events for later this week intended to allow Trump to appear presidential in the wake of the AR-15 killing spree by a troubled former student at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland that left 17 dead.

White House officials say the president is pressing lawmakers to tighten federal background check laws, but his own inability to cut bipartisan deals since taking office, coupled with lawmakers’ recent inaction after other mass shootings, suggests legislation is a long shot.

Senior Democratic congressional aides said Tuesday they doubt Trump and Republicans will bend enough on gun-related matters to strike a bipartisan accord, even on updating background check laws to make it more difficult for individuals with mental health issues to purchase firearms.

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“We’re skeptical for a few reasons,” said one senior Democratic aide.

Trump appeared to once again stomp on his aides’ best-laid plans by late Tuesday morning with a series of tweets about the Russian investigation, the 2018 midterms and even a denial of a 13-year-old charge that he forcibly kissed a woman 37 years his junior in 2005.

The president late last week was eager to visit with victims, pushing his aides to schedule a Friday evening visit to a Florida hospital on the way to his Mar-a-Lago resort. On Monday, White House aides painted Trump as supporting gun-related legislation.

“The President spoke to Senator [John] Cornyn on Friday about the bipartisan bill he and Sen. [Christopher S.] Murphy introduced to improve federal compliance with criminal background check legislation,” Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said in a statement. “While discussions are ongoing and revisions are being considered, the President is supportive of efforts to improve the federal background check system.”

Watch: Trump Sends Condolences to Florida Shooting Victims and Families

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A question of perception

Meanwhile, Democratic aides are asking, Where’s the beef?

“I’m old enough to remember when Republicans were promising to ban [bump stocks]. They’re still legal,” the Senate Democratic aide said, referring to a device that allowed the 2017 Las Vegas shooter to kill 58 and injure hundreds by converting his semiautomatic gun into one firing at near automatic speeds.

The Cornyn-Murphy idea “isn’t even the bare minimum that we need to do to address gun violence — its less than that,” the Democratic aide said. “If that’s all they can do, that’s pathetic.”

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A senior Democratic House aide said the “proof is in the pudding.”

House Democratic leaders would prefer a bill that would produce “dramatic changes” such as curbing gun show and online sales, but Republican support remains elusive, the aide said.

Still, the White House at least wants to portray the president as trying to prevent additional school shootings.

Trump is slated to hold a “listening session” Wednesday with students and teachers who survived the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School massacre. Students there have been vocally calling on federal and state officials to pass new, tougher gun-access laws.

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The next day, the president will huddle with state and local officials about enhancing school safety. The focus of that session will be tackling “the difficult issue of mental health,” Trump said Thursday during remarks on the shooting.

“Making our schools and our children safer will be our top priority,” he said. “It is not enough to take actions that make us feel like we are making a difference. We must actually make that difference.”

Looking for leverage

Some Democrats are worried the White House will end up taking the side of Republican lawmakers who want to respond to the Parkland shooting by making it easier for gun owners to carry firearms across state lines. The trade in any potential bill would be modest background check changes favored by Democratic members for the concealed carry changes favored by GOP lawmakers.

“We hear that they’re attempting to leverage this moment and bill into passing concealed reciprocity legislation,” the Senate Democratic aide said, “which would be a giant step backwards for gun safety.”

Trump has yet to broker a major bipartisan deal despite running as a successful businessman uniquely suited to bring Washington Republicans and Democrats together to end the Barack Obama-era legislative gridlock. But last week’s ultimately unproductive Senate immigration floor process further dims hopes that the White House will rally behind anything but a conservative bill.

West Wing aides, backed by an uncharacteristically aggressive Department of Homeland Security, methodically helped prevent a bipartisan Senate group’s immigration overhaul bill from passing. The White House suddenly displayed a notable amount of patience, something observers expect will occur again given Trump’s base is composed of staunch defenders of the Second Amendment.

“You have a true friend and champion in the White House. No longer will federal agencies be coming after law-abiding gun owners,” Trump said in April 2017 at a National Rifle Association conference in Atlanta. “No longer will the government be trying to undermine your rights and your freedoms as Americans. Instead, we will work with you, by your side.”