After two weeks of shifting musings on gun measures, President Trump is expected to miss a self-imposed deadline to produce specific proposals on Friday, according to aides — in the latest sign of how chaos in the White House is hampering policymaking.
Lawmakers from both parties have told Trump they can only succeed in passing the comprehensive package of gun safety proposals he's asked for if he leads the debate, and provides Republicans with political cover to stand up to the formidable gun lobbies in a perilous election year. Even so, many fear the president won't keep his word given his reversals in the past, notably on immigration and healthcare.
The difficulties the administration has had in forging and communicating a policy to respond to the shooting deaths of 17 students and staff members at a Florida high school two weeks ago highlight how, more than a year into his tenure, Trump has been unable to translate his impulses into actual legislative proposals, or stick to positions long enough to do so.
Just two months ago, with the new year beginning and momentum from a major victory on a tax-cut bill, Trump advisors and many outside observers thought the White House had made progress toward solving that problem. But Trump's erratic actions on immigration, infrastructure policy, trade and now gun safety — combined with the departures of several close aides — have once again shown that any such progress is likely always to be tentative in his administration.
Gun control groups and some lawmakers, especially Democrats, seized on Trump's recent comments to express cautious optimism on Thursday that, in the wake of the latest mass shooting, in Parkland, Fla., Washington could end a years-long stalemate and enact some gun restrictions.
By their remarks, they sought to hold Trump to his promises a day earlier during a marathon televised session at the White House at which Trump embraced several positions long opposed by the National Rifle Assn. — and Republicans.
"He hasn't rescinded anything he's said," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a San Francisco Democrat who was at the meeting, counting the number of hours Trump had gone as of Thursday afternoon without disavowing his Wednesday promises. "We're waiting, we're hoping."
Later Thursday, Trump held an unannounced dinner with at least one top NRA leader, which Trump called "great" in a tweet, another sign that he may not be eager to face off against the powerful lobby group.
Chris Cox, the executive director of the NRA, tweeted that the group agreed with Trump on the need to keep guns away from "dangerous people" and improve school safety while assuring members that Trump would not strip them of their constitutional rights and does not "want gun control."
At the White House meeting Wednesday, he told a bipartisan group of lawmakers that he would ban so-called bump stocks by regulation. He asked them to send him "one terrific bill" — to set a minimum age of 21 for purchasing assault weapons; strengthen background checks for buyers, especially to keep guns from the mentally ill; and provide for restraining orders for gun owners in domestic violence cases, among other provisions. He shocked Democrats and Republicans by leaving open the possibility he'd support an assault weapons ban.
Even the professed optimists on the gun control side didn't expect the kind of comprehensive package that Trump urged on Congress.
Less than two months ago, Feinstein was among a bipartisan group of lawmakers at another White House session, exchanging smiles, policy ideas and vows of action on immigration — only to see Trump soon reverse course and, within weeks, ultimately doom several bipartisan bills by his condemnations.
On another topic on Thursday — trade — White House aides disputed reports that Trump would propose severe tariffs on imported steel and aluminum, a matter of much wrangling among administration officials, only to have the president do so at a meeting with industry executives.
The conflicting signals on trade policy played out on television, providing a window into the chaos that surrounds policymaking in the West Wing.
A senior White House official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations, called the immigration comparison unfair, and defended Trump's stances toward the bills in Congress.
The official said the administration would not meet Trump's Friday deadline to announce gun policy proposals because officials are following up with lawmakers on issues discussed Wednesday.
"Rather than jamming up Congress with specific proposals that become 'Trump proposals' — and all of a sudden Democrats are unified against it — allowing them to have a discussion that we can engage on is probably a better approach," the official said.
"We're not talking weeks here. We're talking days," the official added.
Meanwhile, the NRA was working to slow any follow-up from Trump on gun control measures, telling CNN his meeting with lawmakers amounted to "great TV" but bad policy that would infringe on gun owners' constitutional rights.
Gun control groups, in contrast, looked to Trump for the follow-up that would persuade Republicans to stand up to the NRA, as the president had urged.
"He needs to give them a backbone and he needs to tell them it is time to walk away from the NRA, just like American businesses are doing," said John Feinblatt, president of Everytown for Gun Safety, a group that advocates for gun limits.
In an early sign of slowing momentum, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, told reporters that he would not schedule action on any gun-related legislation next week, focusing on banking regulations instead.
Democrats worked to keep guns at the center of debate. Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer of New York and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco pressed Trump not to repeat the immigration experience, listing Democratic policy priorities and imploring Republican lawmakers to buck the NRA.
"The president started on the right foot, but we must work together to get it done," Schumer said on the Senate floor.
Pelosi, speaking to reporters, said the White House had yet to contact her following Wednesday's meeting to discuss a legislative plan.
"Calmly, prayerfully, hopefully, respectfully, I hope that the president will make clear to Republicans in Congress that we have to move forward and not just some little bill. It has to be substantial," she said.
Republicans seemed fine with accepting a smaller measure than Trump called for, given the divisions between the parties on many provisions.
"There are things that we can do that have wide bipartisan support," said Florida Sen. Marco Rubio. "Do not hold hostage a piece of legislation that would work and that we all support because it doesn't have everything that we'd want."
Rubio said he backed a plan for federal grants to strengthen school security as well as a proposal, made most often by Democrats, for "gun violence restraining orders" allowing law enforcement officials to take guns from people considered a threat, such as in domestic violence cases.
Republicans, including Rubio, signaled their opposition to Trump's comment at the White House on Wednesday that he wanted law enforcement officials to be able to take guns first and worry about gun owners' "due process" rights later.
"To be clear, the due process in such situations would be on the front end, not on the back end," Rubio said.
Trump's impulsive comments and tweets, and his inexperience in policy discussions, have been a persistent source of frustration for Republican lawmakers, adding uncertainty over whether they can depend on him to stand by his day-to-day statements.
Rep. Adam Kinzinger, a moderate Republican from Illinois, could not say where the president stood on gun policy when asked on CNN Thursday.
"I don't know," he said. "At one point, you hear him say he doesn't want to do anything, and then at another point he says he wants to do a lot."
7:30 p.m.: This article was updated with information on Trump's dinner Thursday with at least one NRA leader and comments from the NRA's executive director.