- By Ashley Parker, Philip Rucker The Washington Post
President Donald Trump's decision to place himself at the center of the roiling debate over the nation's gun laws began hours after last week's Florida high school massacre, when images of angry yet poised teenage survivors were beamed into the White House on live television.
Trump's aides almost immediately recognized the power of their message and argued that before the president could propose any solutions, he needed to hear personally from these young adults, according to administration officials. Trump agreed.
The plans culminated six days later under the grand chandelier of the White House's state dining room, where Trump sat face-to-face with survivors of gun violence and the relatives of victims and witnessed their angst and raw anger.
The president, who has often struggled to convey empathy, clutched a slim notecard with reminders about how to communicate with the grieving - "I hear you," read one - that officials said White House Communications Director Hope Hicks jotted down during a huddle with Trump to prepare for the event.
In the end, the response to the deadly mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School unfurled in classic Trump fashion: He floated policies without offering specifics. He shaped his views by surveying friends and reacting to the testimonials he saw on cable news. And he cast himself as the main protagonist in the unfolding gun drama.
"We're going to do something about this horrible situation that's going on, and we're going to all figure it out together," Trump said as he opened Wednesday's session. "I want to listen. And then after I listen, we're going to get things done."
Inside the West Wing, his advisers were anxious about what might unfold in such a charged and unscripted atmosphere, according to aides familiar with the debate, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to share internal discussions. Some had pressed to limit the amount of time television cameras were permitted to broadcast, but others — including the president himself — felt it was worth the risk to allow the media see the entire event.
"He wanted it to be largely unscripted because he wanted it to be real," one senior White House official said. "He wanted a free-flowing dialogue. . . . He wanted to listen to these kids."
Earlier, Trump met privately with Andrew Pollack, whose daughter, Meadow, was among the 17 people killed at the high school in Parkland, Florida. Pollack was initially not slated to attend the broader media session, but Trump made a personal appeal, according to the senior White House official.
Pollack did attend and provided one of the most intense and moving moments of the day. "I'm very angry that this happened, because it keeps happening," he told the president with the cameras rolling. "I'm pissed. It was my daughter I am not going to see again."
At Wednesday's event and elsewhere, Trump broached several policies — more comprehensive background checks for gun purchases, raising the minimum age for buying an assault rifle, banning bump stocks and, most controversially, arming teachers — but was vague and always changing on the specifics.
"Right now we're in a listening phase," Raj Shah, deputy principal White House press secretary, told reporters Thursday. "I wouldn't say that we are or aren't going to propose something that is as specific as legislative language."
Eager to be seen as leading the debate, Trump tossed out ideas like so much fish food. He was inspired by the emotion conveyed by the shooting survivors blanketing cable news, aides said, as much as by considered policy discussions.
"What's inspiring him is obviously this tremendous tragedy, and when you sit down with parents and kids that were actually there and you hear their side of the story and the pain and anguish that they have, it makes you want to do something," said Ed Rollins, strategist on a pro-Trump super PAC. "But the issue has always been extremely complicated. There's no easy answer for it."
Trump's advisers urged caution, counseling the president not to make knee-jerk proposals on a policy issue as fraught as guns but rather to let the debate play out and Congress sort out the details, administration officials said.
But Trump has not heeded that advice, insisting that he be seen as spurring action and at times seeming reactive rather than deliberative — spurred on in part by what he sees as an opportunity to fix a problem that former President Barack Obama and others proved unable to solve.
"Unlike, for many years, where people sitting in my position did not take action, they didn't take proper action, they took no action at all, we're going to take action," Trump said Thursday, although he has yet to provide any guidance to Congress about just what sort of legislation he might support.
Even his allies who are intimately involved in the gun debate were left confused about what he was proposing. On background checks, for instance, Trump was unclear about whether he was advocating for a universal system that closes loopholes and has been long championed by Democrats, or simply making tweaks to shore up existing law.
Last Friday, aides connected him and Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn, R-Texas, by phone so that Trump could learn more about his bipartisan bill to improve the federal background check database.
His most divisive proposal came during Wednesday's listening session, when he suggested that arming appropriately trained teachers might help save lives during school shootings.
When such a proposal was floated in the wake of the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, by Wayne LaPierre, the National Rifle Association's executive vice president, it was treated as a fringe idea and widely dismissed by educators and gun-safety advocates. But now the person pushing the idea is the president.
Some White House aides have mentioned arming teachers to Trump privately over the past week, noting that some Republican-majority states are considering similar state laws.
"We have to harden our schools, not soften them up," Trump said Thursday. "A gun-free zone to a killer or somebody that wants to be a killer, that's like going in for the ice cream. Like, 'Here I am - take me.' "
Trump also talked with lawmakers and friends about raising the age from 18 to 21 for purchasing assault weapons, like the AR-15 used in the Parkland shooting and many other massacres.
Aboard Air Force One last Friday en route to Florida to meet with victims and first responders, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., joined Trump and argued that the age limit for rifles was based on a previous era when handguns, not rifles, accounted for most high-profile gun violence, said one person familiar with the conversation. Now, Rubio said, the epidemic of mass shootings involving assault rifles had brought the issue to the fore again. The two men also discussed other school safety initiatives.
The next night, at Trump's private Mar-a-Lago Club in Palm Beach, Florida, the president dined with talk show host Geraldo Rivera. Over Dover sole (Rivera) and well-done steak (Trump), the two men discussed what could be done to prevent future shootings, according to a person with knowledge of the conversation.
Like Rubio, Rivera suggested raising the age for purchasing assault weapons, and Trump seemed receptive to the idea, this person said. The president also told Rivera and others at the club that he "knew he had to do something."
Trump, a Manhattan real estate developer who was born in Queens, did not emerge from a gun culture. "He has never been a gun guy," one longtime Trump confidant said.
In 2000, Trump supported the federal assault weapons ban that was in effect at the time. "I generally oppose gun control, but I support the ban on assault weapons and I also support a slightly longer waiting period to purchase a gun," he wrote in a book that year, "The America We Deserve."
During the 2016 presidential campaign, Trump seemed to reject the idea of arming teachers. "Crooked Hillary said that I want guns brought into the school classroom. Wrong!" he wrote on Twitter, referring to his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton.
But aides said the president is sensitive to the cultural significance of the Second Amendment in large swaths of the country, particularly those states that helped propel him to his electoral college victory.
While Trump is willing to take some tentative steps on gun restrictions, he is reluctant to spurn the NRA outright and has been in frequent touch with Chris Cox, the NRA's top lobbyist and strategist.
Aides said that, when reminded Thursday that the NRA opposes raising the minimum age for purchasing assault weapons, Trump told them that the administration should still champion the idea - but be sure to also praise the NRA and its leaders.
Then the president did just that during a roundtable event at the White House: "They're very, very great people. They love this country. They're patriots. The NRA wants to do the right thing."
Trump spent the Presidents' Day holiday weekend at Mar-a-Lago with his two adult sons, both avid hunters and gun rights advocates, who assured him that he had more political flexibility than others around him realized to push for small legislative changes that they viewed as "common sense."
White House officials have struggled to outline Trump's precise policy goals when it comes to guns, and have avoided overpromising that sweeping changes will happen quickly. But they were all united in at least one message — Trump, they repeated, would be a man of action.
"These are not easy solutions," White House counselor Kellyanne Conway said on "Fox & Friends" on Thursday. "But this is a necessary conversation, and this is a president that doesn't just listen. He acts."