“I think we made some good progress on background checks and guns,” the President said after emerging from the briefing. Trump said he was discussing various options with Democrats and Republicans, and that he believed both sides wanted to see action.
But asked specifically whether he was supporting expanding background checks
, Trump demurred, saying it depended on the final measure.
“It depends on if Democrats want to take your guns away,” he said. “If this is a movement by the Democrats to take your guns away, it’s never going to happen.”
The answer did not provide the clarity many lawmakers had been hoping for from the President as they prepare to debate gun control legislation.
Trump, while open to supporting “significant” new legislation, has not decided whether to back expanded background checks, a person with knowledge of the situation said. Instead, he has asked for additional talks among senators, administration officials and Attorney General Bill Barr to see if a proposal can be worked out.
It’s still unclear if the White House will offer such a proposal or issue a broader statement of principles. The President has yet to decide, the person said.
The issue assumed new urgency after another mass shooting at the end of August in Texas. The month began with gruesome massacres in El Paso and Dayton.
Trump vowed action, and even expressed some openness to expanding background checks. But after conversations with political advisers and leadership from the National Rifle Association, the President’s support for background checks softened. He’s since been vague about what he will support.
Still, he’s remained committed to getting behind some type of change. White House aides have spent the last month meeting with congressional staffs to devise a package of revisions following the spree of deadly mass shootings. The Justice Department also prepared a package of options that was delivered to the White House more than two weeks ago.
What isn’t known yet is whether Trump will get behind a measure expanding background checks, including a bipartisan one championed by Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Republican Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania.
Trump spoke with those lawmakers, along with Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut, on Wednesday. But the lawmakers walked away without a clear view of whether the President would back their proposal, which failed to gain enough support for passage in 2013.
Some Republicans who voted against the Toomey-Manchin bill then have since said they could reconsider it now. Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, who is close to Trump, signaled Thursday that he is open to expanding background checks. He said he had discussed the matter with the President on Wednesday evening.
While Graham did not explicitly say he’d back Manchin-Toomey now, he said it was a direction he was leaning. Asked if he was willing to change his vote, he said, “Yes.”
Privately, Barr has been nudging Trump to get behind a measure expanding background checks. And the President has not ruled it out.
But some of his political advisers have advised him against it, citing polling showing such a step would prove unpopular among his political base. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said he’ll move only on legislation that has Trump’s clear support, which so far has not been forthcoming.
In Thursday’s meeting, Trump was briefed on summaries of each of the items that are up for consideration, according to a White House official.
That includes, according to officials: allowing minors’ records to be included in background check databases; alerting local authorities when someone fails a background check; applying bigger penalties for straw purchases (when someone buys a gun for someone else); instituting a ban on gun purchases for people on terror watch lists; increasing the penalty for people who lie on background check forms; helping states implement “red flag” laws, which would remove weapons from people deemed at risk; adding additional government records to an existing background check database; improving mental health services; and expediting the death penalty for convicted mass shooters.