Nobody knew quite what to think.
After a wide-ranging, televised meeting Wednesday at the White House, Democrats walked away stunned and with some tepid optimism that something substantial could happen on guns, while Republicans appeared flummoxed.
After all, President Donald Trump had defied traditional GOP orthodoxy on an issue as essential to the Republican brand as any: guns.
And unlike earlier meetings where Trump has embraced bipartisanship without any specificity, Trump was explicit about what he wanted Wednesday. On camera, he’d pushed to raise the age at which an individual can purchase a rifle from 18 to 21 even after a weekend lunch with officials from the National Rifle Association, who have publicly opposed the change. Trump called to expand background checks and told the House’s Majority Whip Steve Scalise that a concealed carry bill would never pass attached to legislation to incentivize states to enter data into the national background checks database.
“I don’t know how much clearer he could have been and the whole country can watch it,” said Minnesota Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar.
Democrats argued that Trump had power Democratic President Barack Obama never had: trust with the Republican base that he would not infringe on the Second Amendment.
“With President Trump no one believes he will take their guns away,” said West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin.
But the impact of the meeting at the White House, which stunned some within the President’s own party and puzzled aides back on the Hill, was still uncertain.
“Holy s—,” one Democratic Senate aide emailed as they watched the meeting unfolding.
“I don’t know, man,” another Democratic Senate aide said. “We’ll see what happens, I guess.”
Earlier in the day, negotiations to bring gun legislation to the floor of the Senate had broken down and there was no clear path for floor consideration of any bill, regardless of scope. But the meeting at the White House and Trump’s obvious and continued push to do something raised questions from aides and lawmakers as to whether the dynamic had changed — or whether Trump would simply shift away from his positions and enthusiasm for action in the days ahead, as he has multiple times in the past.
Republicans returned to Capitol Hill still a bit unsettled by what they’d heard. For days, lawmakers in the GOP had a united and concise message: if Congress were to do anything, it would be enforcing school safety and fixing the National Instant Criminal Background Checks system. There was little appetite to do more.
But Trump wanted something “comprehensive.” In the meeting Trump called for Manchin-Toomey, legislation that had expanded background checks on internet and gun show sales, to be the base bill. As lawmakers brainstormed ideas around the table, Trump encouraged many of them to be added to the background check bill.
Sen. Marco Rubio, a Republican from Florida, was skeptical “comprehensive” could work.
“I think that’s ideal if you could do it all at once,” Rubio said. “I just don’t think it’s likely to pass knowing this place.”
Sen. John Cornyn, the Senate’s whip who had been seated next to Trump during the meeting described the meeting as “fascinating television” and “surreal.”
“My takeaway is that we like to start with background checks and build from there and see where we can get consensus,” Cornyn said. “And to be the most obvious place to start is the Fix NICs bill that has 46 co-sponsors.”
He added that rolling multiple gun bills into one was “easier said than done.”
Many Republicans remarked that they’d seen Trump call for comprehensive, bipartisan legislation in the past in televised White House meetings that never materialized. Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Republican from South Carolina, warned that Trump would need to follow through this time or risk hurting his reputation.
“If we don’t do it this time, then this will get old.” Graham said, “If the President has another one of these sessions and he doesn’t follow through — it’s going to hurt him. It’s going to hurt the Republican Party.”
Graham had been a part of similar on-camera meeting last month, that one dedicated to finding a solution on immigration, another issue on which lawmakers haven’t been able to find a deal.
“I’ve seen this movie before” Graham added. “If it ends up like immigration he’s done himself a lot of harm. If we can actually deliver, he’s done himself and the country a lot of good.”
Republicans also offered some strong rebukes to a few of Trump’s comments.
Sen. Dan Sullivan, a Republican from Alaska, warned there were several Republicans with concerns about raising the age individuals could buy rifles from 18 to 21.
“I’m probably not the only senator in the US Senate who isn’t supportive of that. But again, it’s not like we’re not trying to be constructive but you know I have 16-year-old Alaskans who go out and hunt and they do it seriously. … We’re very, very different from Connecticut and other places,” Sullivan said.
Others were worried that during the meeting that Trump said he wanted individuals who were identified as potentially dangerous to have their guns taken from them before they went to court.
“Strong leaders don’t automatically agree with the last thing that was said to them. We have the Second Amendment and due process of law for a reason,” Ben Sasse, a Republican senator from Nebraska, said in a statement. “We’re not ditching any Constitutional protections simply because the last person the President talked to today doesn’t like them.”