WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump upended modest Republican gun-control proposals and defied the National Rifle Association during a freewheeling session with lawmakers Wednesday that the president said should yield comprehensive restrictions "on the strong side."
But in the televised meeting at the White House, Trump sent so many mixed signals about what he envisioned for a package on firearms and school safety that he left Democrats gleeful and Republicans tight-lipped amid doubts that Congress would produce any legislation.
"We want to pass something great, and to me the something great has to be where we prevent it from happening again," Trump said, referring to the shooting deaths of 17 students and faculty members at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, on Feb. 14.
Sitting with a group of Democrats and Republicans, including some who are backed by the NRA, Trump made what sounded like an extraordinary break with the powerful gun-rights organization. He accused lawmakers of being so "petrified" by the NRA that they have not been willing to take even small steps on gun control.
"They have great power over you people," Trump said. "They have less power over me."
The session was reminiscent of a bipartisan White House meeting Trump convened in January on immigration, in which the unpredictable president promised to sign any compromise solution Congress could craft, only to reject the outcome days later. Behind the scenes, administration officials had sabotaged a bipartisan bill that inevitably collapsed.
On Wednesday, Trump backed or said he would consider tougher background checks for gun buyers, greater police power to seize guns from mentally disturbed people, the outlawing of "bump stock" devices and tighter age limits for buying rifles such as that used in Parkland.
Most striking were Trump's remarks decrying what he called excessive "checks and balances" that limit what can be done to prevent mentally unfit people from buying or keeping guns.
"Take the firearms first, and then go to court," Trump said, cutting off Vice President Mike Pence as Pence articulated a version of the due-process arguments that the NRA and other gun-rights advocates have used to derail past gun-control measures. "You could do exactly what you're saying, but take the guns first, go through due process second."
That prompted a stunning rebuke from Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., who accused Trump of flouting the Constitution.
"Strong leaders don't automatically agree with the last thing that was said to them," Sasse said in a statement. "We have the Second Amendment and due process of law for a reason. We're not ditching any Constitutional protections simply because the last person the president talked to today doesn't like them."
Trump pressed lawmakers to send him "one terrific bill" combining several proposals aimed at reducing gun violence, although that could complicate the legislative outlook for such a contentious issue in an election year.
"It would be so beautiful to have one bill," Trump told lawmakers at the outset.
In closing, he urged them, "I'd rather have you come down on the strong side."
In between, he dismissed an NRA-backed proposal to expand gun owners' ability to carry concealed weapons, saying it would spoil the package he wants lawmakers to assemble.
"If you add concealed carry to this, you'll never get it passed," Trump told House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., the chamber's chief vote-counter and a survivor of a mass shooting last year. "We want to get something done," Trump told Scalise.
Scalise was trying to win Trump's backing for a compromise to combine a modest bill meant to bolster reporting to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, or NICS, with a measure that would require all states to recognize concealed-carry permits issued by other states.
In an interview after the meeting, Scalise said that he was "not giving up on this issue" and that the president's remarks had not fundamentally changed the dynamics in the conservative House. The onus, he said, was on the Senate to craft a bill that addressed the gaps in the current law but protected gun owners' rights.
Scalise suggested that Trump's emphasis on bucking the NRA was misplaced.
"It isn't as much about the NRA as the millions of people who strongly, passionately believe that they should have the right under the Constitution to defend themselves and their families, and I strongly support that right," he said. "Our Founding Fathers strongly believed in the right of law-abiding citizens to defend themselves when they founded this county. We ought to preserve that."
Trump's embrace of several tougher restrictions on firearms – steps strongly opposed by many Republicans and the NRA – drew a giddy response from Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., a proponent of an assault-weapons ban.
Hours before the summit, Democrats called on Trump to back expanded background checks, throwing their weight behind a measure that failed to advance through Congress after the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting.
Now, after Florida high school shooting, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and other top Democrats think that Trump could help muscle through a measure long opposed by the NRA and many GOP lawmakers.
Although Trump appeared to support what would be the largest effort to enact new gun control in more than a decade, it was not clear what role he would play and whether he would try to insulate lawmakers from a gun-rights backlash.
"I thought it was fascinating television," Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn, R-Texas, said afterward, suggesting the president was playing to the cameras.
Cornyn sat next to Trump during the one-hour meeting, which took place with reporters and news cameras crowded behind the lawmakers' chairs. He, like other lawmakers present, could be seen exchanging glances with colleagues as Trump spoke.
The president appeared to agree with Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., who told Trump: "Mr. President, the reason nothing has gotten done here is that the gun lobby has had a veto power over any legislation that comes before the Congress."
Trump also called himself "the biggest fan of the Second Amendment" and a fan of the NRA, but he said he had told NRA leaders at a lunch Sunday that he is willing to buck them.
"It's time," Trump aid. "We've got to stop this nonsense."
The NRA's PAC or super PAC spent $42.3 million in ads and other forms of electioneering supporting Trump in 2016.
Trump repeated his pledge to unilaterally do away with bump stocks – devices that allow semiautomatic weapons to fire like automatic weapons – which he said would give lawmakers one fewer issue to worry about.
Although Trump had been silent in recent days about whether he supports raising the buying age for long guns to 21 from 18, he said Wednesday he thinks the idea, opposed by the NRA, has merit and will consider it.
When told that the age-21 limit was not included in a universal-background-checks bill written by Sens. Patrick Toomey, R-Pa., and Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., Trump told Toomey: "You know why? Because you're afraid of the NRA."
Trump tweeted support this month for "comprehensive" background checks, and Republican leaders have interpreted that as support for a narrow measure aimed at improving the reporting of disqualifying offenses to NICS.
But Democrats favor a much broader expansion of background checks and are pushing legislation that "at minimum" would mandate them for all private gun sales – including at gun shows or over the Internet. Currently, only federally licensed firearms dealers must conduct such checks.
In 2013, just months after the Sandy Hook massacre, a version of the legislation was proposed by Toomey and Manchin. It failed to advance, on a 54 to 46 vote, falling short of the necessary 60. Five Democrats and 41 Republicans opposed it.
The NRA opposed the legislation at the time, arguing that it "will not prevent the next shooting, will not solve violent crime and will not keep our kids safe in schools."
Manchin and Toomey have expressed a willingness to revisit their legislation, and a number of senators who voted no in 2013 have said since the shooting in Florida that they might reconsider their positions.
For now, many lawmakers want to pass the narrower legislation related to NICS, although that bill is tangled up by objections in the Senate. GOP leaders are not eager to let the bill eat up Senate floor time unless it can pass and are saying it is unlikely that the measure will come to a vote anytime soon without a clearer path to passage.
"We're working with those who've voiced concerns and talked about the art of the possible," Cornyn said Wednesday. "The problem on this issue is there's so many conflicting demands that nothing happens. Reminds me of immigration, in that sense. That would be unacceptable in my view."