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Trump upends gun politics — for now

Donald Trump dramatically shook up the firearms debate on Capitol Hill on Wednesday — if he can stick to his guns.

During an hourlong televised meeting with lawmakers in both parties, Trump stiff-armed congressional Republicans’ guns strategy while endorsing some bipartisan ideas Democrats are pushing.

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But as Washington grapples for a response to the Feb. 14 massacre in Parkland, Florida, Trump’s ability to find results will depend on whether he can prod the GOP-led Congress to move beyond its comfort zone on guns.

Members of both parties were highly uncertain on Wednesday about whether Trump would maintain his embrace of gun-control proposals that are bitterly opposed by the National Rifle Association and anathema to many conservatives on Capitol Hill, including expanded background checks and raising the age limit to buy certain rifles to 21.

Several Democrats likened the meeting to Trump’s January push for “comprehensive immigration reform” — another televised summit with lawmakers — which he followed with a head-snapping turnabout against such a compromise two days later.

“I’ve been with the president in meetings where he made similar promises,” said Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin of Illinois. “Stay tuned. My advice is hope for the best, don’t be surprised if he changes his mind in 48 hours.”

Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) offered a similar warning: “I’m afraid what we’re going to see is an exact repeat of the pattern we saw before, where the president has a wonderful and constructive and open and bipartisan meeting on immigration, and 48 hours later, rejects a strong bipartisan deal,” he said.

Trump’s endorsement of an expanded background checks bill from Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) left both senators enthusiastic about reviving it, despite their failure to win 60 votes in 2013 and 2015 after other mass shootings.

“The way I take it is, the president’s commitment and passion for this that we saw today I think will remain,” Toomey told reporters. “I think that, over time, can move votes.”

But other Republicans made clear that they see little prospect of moving beyond a narrow, bipartisan proposal to improve background-check record keeping — despite Trump’s declaration that “it would be nice if we could add everything onto it.”

Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas), who at times was visibly agog during the meeting, said, “I wouldn’t confuse what he said with what can actually pass in terms of people’s views on the Second Amendment, for example.”

Trump is “a unique president,” Cornyn added. “If he was focused on a specific piece of legislation rather than a grab-bag of ideas, then I think he could have a lot of influence. But right now, we don’t have that.”

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who is open to barring those younger than 21 from buying the AR-15-style rifles used in the Florida school shooting, recalled that “you saw, even in that room” at the White House on Wednesday, “some hesitation on the age limit.”

The comprehensive package Trump floated would be “ideal,” Rubio told reporters, but “I don’t think it’s likely … knowing this place.”

Perhaps Trump’s most durable move on Wednesday was insisting that House conservatives in the lower chamber abandon their plans to keep an expansion of concealed-carry rights for gun owners attached to the narrow background-checks bill, which would encourage federal agencies and states to submit information on individuals’ criminal histories to the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System.

Donald Trump is pictured. | AP Photo

“You know I’m your biggest fan in the whole world. … I’m with you, but let it be a separate bill,” Trump told House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, the Louisiana lawmaker who was seriously wounded in a June mass shooting.

The president’s firm stance likely gives House GOP leaders cover to take up the modest gun bill without the concealed-carry language, a long-sought NRA priority, according to senior Republican sources. That’s if the Senate passes any legislation, which is still uncertain. Democrats are balking at swift passage of the Fix NICS bill absent a chance to pass more expansive gun control measures. Some conservative Republicans also oppose the legislation.

In fact, Trump used the televised meeting to pointedly challenge fellow Republicans to defy the NRA, despite the influential pro-gun group’s vocal support for his campaign.

When Toomey said his background-checks bill with Manchin didn’t address the age limit for purchasing AR-15-style rifles, Trump replied, “Because you’re afraid of the NRA, right?”

That rhetorical flirtation left some Democrats hopeful that Trump would keep playing the shake-up-the-system persona that he occasionally deployed on the campaign trail.

“This may be an opportunity,” Rep. Elizabeth Esty (D-Conn.) told reporters after she left the White House meeting. “If the president is willing to use his view of himself as a tough guy, someone who is not bought and paid for, that could be very helpful.”

Rep. Ted Deutch (D-Fla.), whose district includes the high school where 17 students and teachers were shot to death earlier this month, on Wednesday seized the moment to give Trump the “Parkland Strong” bracelet he has worn ever since the massacre. Deutch said he didn’t plan the gesture but “gave it to the president in the hopes that it would remind him” of the tragically commonplace nature of mass shooting commemorations.

The White House is expected to make an announcement on gun violence as soon as this week. But aides won’t say who is taking the policy lead on guns, a job that Vice President Joe Biden held during the Obama administration.

Trump: 'Take the guns first, go through due process second'

The president has thrown himself into displays of consensus-gathering. In addition to today’s televised roundtable, he’s held public meetings with shooting victims and governors. He’s met privately with executives from the NRA.

And despite Trump’s declaration Wednesday that he had told the group he would “stop this nonsense” of mass shootings, gun advocates are confident that Trump won’t turn against them. Capitol Hill Republicans privately said they expect the president to walk back his comments later this week.

Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.), who’s said he doesn’t see the need for new gun-control bills and opposes the narrow background-checks bill as written, said he wasn’t bothered by Trump’s televised thumbs-up for proposals that Democrats are clamoring to vote on.

“I don’t know” if Trump will reverse himself soon, Kennedy told reporters, “but presidents are people, too. They change their minds.”

Lorraine Woellert, Heather Caygle and Rachael Bade contributed to this report.

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