David Smith in Washington
Donald Trump, who last month chided fellow Republicans for being “petrified” of the National Rifle Association (NRA), is under growing pressure after seemingly caving in to the powerful gun lobby group’s demands.
The US president on Sunday backed away from raising the minimum age for gun purchases from 18 to 21, one of several measures he initially supported after the mass shooting at a high school in Parkland, Florida, on 14 February.
The proposal was notably absent from a modest set of Trump administration plans for school safety released over the weekend, which closely aligned with NRA positions. They include training teachers to carry guns in schools, a fiercely controversial idea already in place in some states.
Sarah Sanders, the White House press secretary, insisted on Monday that the president has not abandoned some of the more radical changes but is focused on measures that can get through Congress straight away.
“Right now the president’s primary focus is on pushing through things that we know have broad bipartisan support or things that we can do from an administrative perspective, that we can do immediately,” she said. “But we haven’t let go of some of those other things that we’re going to continue to review and look at.”
Asked if there was a single thing in the proposals that was not supported by the NRA, she replied: “The president still has, in this plan, the age limit increase and that is part of one of the things that will be reviewed on what the best path forward is on that front, whether it can be done at a federal level or whether it needs to be done on a state-by-state basis.”
Trump had the $30m backing of the NRA in the presidential election and has been vocal in his support of the second amendment, the right to bear arms.
He met the NRA privately at the White House twice last month as he considered his response to the Florida school shooting, which left 17 people dead.
One reporter at Monday’s press briefing reminded Sanders that, last month, Trump told fellow Republicans: “Some of you are petrified of the NRA. You can’t be petrified.” The reporter added: “But based on the plan last night, it seems like President Trump was the one petrified of the NRA because he backed away from some of the ideas that he had brought into the discussion and I’m asking why he chickened out. Why he didn’t go forward with what he has proposed earlier?”
Sanders protested: “Look, he hasn’t backed away from these things at all. As I just said, they’re still outlined in the plan, but he can’t make them happen with a broad stroke of the pen. You have to have some congressional component to do some of these things. And without that support, it’s not as possible.
“However, we are focused on things that we can do immediately. Let’s not forget that the Obama administration had the White House and all of Congress for two years, and never did anything. This president is actually supporting specific pieces of legislation and still laying out other priorities that he would like to see talked about and implemented.”
Trump left fellow Republicans aghast when, during televised meetings, he seemed to embrace measures including universal background checks and raising the age limit for buying assault weapons.
He still supports legislation aimed at providing more data for the background check system: a database of people who are not legally allowed to buy guns. But he did not endorse a broader proposal that would close loopholes in existing law by requiring background checks for guns bought at gun shows or arranged over the internet.
The White House has deferred some of the more contentious proposals, including raising the minimum purchase age, for further study by a new commission led by Betsy DeVos, the education secretary.
Sanders was also quizzed about Trump’s past criticisms of his predecessors for failing to show leadership on the issue when it appeared that he too was now making the argument for political expediency.
She insisted: “We’re specifically driving forward on some of those things that we know can immediately happen and we’re determining what the best path forward is on some of those other things that don’t have that same broad base of support. You can’t just decide that you want laws to pass and it happens. But you can look at the best process forward to actually implement that type of policy.”
She added: “He is making sure that the things that we can do right now, we’re actually doing. Instead of holding everything back until we can get some of those other pieces done, we’re pushing forward on the things that have support, that can be accomplished immediately, and then we’re working through the process to see what we can do to get the other things done.
“That actually seems smart, and it seems like bold leadership to me – to push through on things that help protect kids while not ignoring some other policies that the president supports, which we’re doing.”
Democrats, once given hope by Trump’s instinctual response, have accused the president of buckling under NRA pressure and reverting to type. House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi said: “The families and students suffering from the heartbreak of gun violence deserve real leadership, not a White House that cravenly tiptoes around the NRA.”