WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump expressed great confidence Friday that he could rally recalcitrant Republicans around legislation strengthening background checks and persuade the nation’s powerful gun lobby to drop its long-standing opposition to such measures, tasks that proved elusive following other mass shootings on his watch.
Appearing outside the White House, Trump claimed that meetings in recent days have already yielded strong congressional support for “very meaningful background checks” and that his party, which has stymied gun-control efforts this year by Democrats, would take the lead in passing new legislation after returning from an August recess.
“I think Republicans are going to be great and lead the charge, along with the Democrats,” Trump told reporters shortly before departing for campaign fundraisers in New York.
The president claimed that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who has refused to allow his chamber to consider House-passed bills strengthening background checks, was now “totally on board” after a conversation between the two men.
In response, a McConnell spokesman said that McConnell had not yet endorsed any legislation since the shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, that left 31 dead and dozens injured.
Trump’s previous declarations of support for tougher gun controls, including after the deadly Parkland, Florida, shooting in February 2018, have foundered in the face of opposition from Republican lawmakers and the National Rifle Association, an organization that strongly backed Trump’s candidacy in 2016.
Trump acknowledged to reporters Friday that there have been previous efforts to strengthen background checks that “went nowhere.”
“But there’s never been a president like President Trump,” he boasted.
“I have a great relationship with the Republican senators and I really think they’re — they’re looking for me to make — give them a signal,” Trump said.
Trump and Senate Republicans are under intense pressure to act in the wake of the shootings, which prompted an outcry over government inaction.
Speaking to reporters on Thursday, McConnell said background checks would be among the measures the Senate would consider after returning from its recess and that it would be “unacceptable” for Congress not to take some action.
McConnell has declined to allow the Senate to consider two bills strengthening background checks that passed the House in February, both of which Trump threatened to veto.
Trump’s comments outside the White House echoed morning tweets in which he also said he had been speaking with leaders of the NRA “so that their very strong views can be fully represented and respected.”
Speaking to reporters, Trump said he is hopeful that the NRA, whose members he called “great patriots,” can be persuaded to support “very meaningful background checks.”
“I think in the end … the NRA will either be there or will maybe be a little more neutral, and that would be OK too,” Trump said.
National Rifle Association chief executive Wayne LaPierre said in a statement this week that he would not discuss conversations with Trump.
“But I can confirm that the NRA opposes any legislation that unfairly infringes upon the rights of law-abiding citizens,” he said. “The inconvenient truth is this: The proposals being discussed by many would not have prevented the horrific tragedies in El Paso and Dayton. Worse, they would make millions of law-abiding Americans less safe and less able to defend themselves and their loved ones.”
In a tweet Friday, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said that if Trump “needs the NRA’s sign off for background checks legislation, it will be nearly impossible to accomplish anything meaningful to address gun violence.”
The Washington Post reported this week that Trump had repeatedly told lawmakers and aides in private conversations that he is open to endorsing extensive background checks in the wake of the two mass shootings, prompting a warning from the NRA and concerns among White House aides.
Early in his tenure, at the NRA’s urging, Trump signed legislation that repealed an Obama-era regulation designed to prevent certain mentally ill people from purchasing firearms.
McConnell said Thursday that he spoke to Trump about the Senate working on legislation to tighten gun laws after the August recess.
In his first interview since the weekend massacres, McConnell specifically mentioned expanding background checks on gun purchases and “red-flag” laws, which would allow authorities to confiscate a firearm from someone deemed a risk to themselves or the public.
“Those are two items that will be front and center as we see what we can come together on and pass,” McConnell said on a Kentucky radio station.
At the same time, McConnell, who faces re-election next year, underscored the difficulty in reaching consensus on a divisive issue. Congress has not passed significant gun-control legislation since the 1990s.
Just two Republican senators — Patrick Toomey of Pennsylvania and Susan Collins of Maine — have been on record in support of expanding background-check laws, specifically through a bill Toomey drafted with Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, in 2012.
Toomey told reporters this week that he hopes the legislation will now gain momentum, but he acknowledged the difficulty in passing it in the Senate, where there is a 60-vote threshold on most legislation because of the filibuster rule.
“This isn’t going to happen tomorrow,” Toomey said in a conference call with reporters, “and if we force a vote tomorrow, then I think the vote probably fails, and we may actually set back this whole effort.”
In late February, the Democratic-led House approved the first major new firearms restrictions to advance in a generation. The proposed legislation would amend federal gun laws to require background checks for all gun sales and most gun transfers.
Federally licensed dealers are required to run background checks on people who buy guns, but private sellers who are not federally licensed are not. Under the bill, private parties would have to seek out a federal license to facilitate a gun deal.
The next day, the chamber passed a separate bill that would extend the time for the government to complete a background check on someone trying to buy a gun from a licensed dealer before the sale can go through.
Trump threatened to veto the two bills, saying they do not sufficiently protect the Second Amendment rights of gun owners. Since the weekend shootings, however, Trump has expressed a new openness to considering background checks.
Democratic leaders have urged McConnell to call the Senate back from recess and take up the House-passed bills.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., sent a letter Thursday to Trump asking him to use his constitutional powers to force the Senate back into session to vote on the two bills — a plea Trump dismissed Friday while speaking to reporters.
During the radio interview Thursday, McConnell said the Senate should wait until after its scheduled return from recess to address the issue.
“What we can’t do is fail to pass something, you know, by just locking up and failing to pass — that’s unacceptable,” McConnell said. “What I want to see here is an outcome, not a bunch of partisan back-and-forth, these shots across the bow.”
Democrats in both chambers are intensely skeptical of any rhetoric from Trump or congressional Republicans expressing openness to various gun restrictions so long as GOP leaders continue to oppose bringing Congress back into session quickly to address the problem. They believe that without quick action and resolve from Trump, any effort at odds with the GOP’s gun-rights activist base will be for naught.
One Democratic congressional aide who was not authorized to comment publicly noted that Trump floated red flag laws after the Parkland, Florida, shooting in 2018, but interest ultimately fizzled and the effort never went anywhere in the Republican-led Congress.
“They’re under immense pressure,” the aide said. “But their strategy is always take some pressure off by saying, ‘We’re looking at that,’ and then hope that the news cycle dies down and by the time Congress goes back into session, there’s something else they have to focus on.”
Sen Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who announced this week that he was working on legislation encouraging more red flag laws in states, is traveling with Trump this weekend and said he would discuss his plans with the president.
Graham and Sen Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., are drafting legislation that would provide incentives for states through grants and other methods to enact their own red flag laws, which are also known as extreme risk protection orders. These laws allow family members or law enforcement officials to petition a judge to bar firearms access to people deemed potentially threatening.
Washington Post writers Mike DeBonis, Colby Itkowitz and Paul Kane contributed to this report.