Trump walks tightrope on gun control

President TrumpDonald John TrumpDemocratic senator rips Trump's 'let them fight' remarks: 'Enough is enough' Warren warns Facebook may help reelect Trump 'and profit off of it' Trump touts Turkey cease-fire: 'Sometimes you have to let them fight' MORE is stringing along the debate over gun control by keeping alive discussions on expanded background checks, but just barely. 

Senate negotiators initially expected Trump to signal his preferred approach to gun violence prevention by Sept. 13. Then they thought it would happen on Sept. 19.

As of Sunday, they’re still waiting.

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The president has yet to indicate what gun control reforms, if any, he’s ready to enforce. Meanwhile, lawmakers on Capitol Hill have been left in a state of limbo. 

A senior Senate Republican aide said Trump appears to be dragging out the debate to keep his options open.

“He doesn’t want to get into a fight with Second Amendment groups, but he doesn’t want to kill it either in case he might need it later on,” the aide said of a proposal to expand background checks to all commercial gun sales.

“So he’s telling senators, ‘Keep talking about it,’” the aide added.

The question of how to respond to gun violence is one of the toughest political tests of Trump’s presidency, one that could define his popularity in three key battleground states: Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin all leaned Democratic before the 2016 election, and each has large blocs of rural, gun-owning voters.

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“It’s one of the biggest tightropes the president is walking,” said Ford O’Connell, a Republican strategist familiar with Trump’s political messaging operation.

“The question that the president is facing is, would adopting these new rules on background checks — how much that would help him in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Florida, North Carolina and Minnesota,” he said.

“Some argue that it could help him at the margins because we’re expecting an extremely close race. The question is, how many rural voters are turned off by this?” he added.

A poll conducted last month by Public Opinion Strategies, a GOP survey firm, showed that suburban women in key districts say addressing gun violence is their top issue. 

The survey also found that 72 percent of women in pivotal suburban districts say gun laws should be stricter.

And Sen. Pat ToomeyPatrick (Pat) Joseph ToomeyNSA improperly collected US phone records in October, new documents show Overnight Defense: Pick for South Korean envoy splits with Trump on nuclear threat | McCain blasts move to suspend Korean military exercises | White House defends Trump salute of North Korean general WH backpedals on Trump's 'due process' remark on guns MORE’s (R-Pa.) sponsorship of legislation to expand background checks in 2013 was credited with helping him pick up swing suburban voters and win reelection three years later in a race Democrats were counting on winning. 

But the National Rifle Association (NRA) on Wednesday slammed a proposal to expand background checks that Attorney General William BarrWilliam Pelham BarrMulvaney walks back comments tying Ukraine aid to 2016 probe Mulvaney ties withheld Ukraine aid to political probe sought by Trump Matthew Shepard's parents blast Barr's LGBTQ record in anniversary of hate crime law MORE circulated on Capitol Hill on behalf of the president.

Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzTrump slams 'very dumb' O'Rourke for proposals on guns, tax exempt status for churches Trump confirms Rick Perry to step down as Energy secretary Overnight Energy: Perry to step down as Energy secretary | Future of big-game hunting council up in the air | Dems lose vote against EPA power plant rule MORE (R-Texas), after meeting with Barr, warned that Democrats could use expanded background checks to create a national registry and facilitate mandatory buyback programs.

“Of the 10 Democrats on stage running for president, three are explicitly supporting gun confiscation by the federal government,” Cruz said after a meeting with GOP colleagues where gun control measures were discussed.

Trump then distanced himself from Barr’s proposal, telling reporters aboard Air Force One on Wednesday that he had not seen the document the Department of Justice shared with Senate offices.

“We’re throwing out many different ideas to Republicans and Democrats — see where they all come out,” he said. “We’re throwing a lot of ideas out, but we’re always going to be watching extremely closely the Second Amendment.”

In Fox News interview earlier in the day, Trump said he was willing to stand up against the NRA "if it's not going to hurt a good, solid great American citizen from keeping his weapon because they want that."

The president also suggested that part of the delay in advancing the gun control debate was due to former Rep. Beto O’Rourke’s (D-Texas) pledge at this month’s Democratic presidential debate that he would confiscate AR-15 semiautomatic rifles.

"Part of the problem that we have is because of Beto O'RourkeBeto O'RourkeTrump slams 'very dumb' O'Rourke for proposals on guns, tax exempt status for churches Hillicon Valley: FCC approves T-Mobile-Sprint merger | Dems wrangle over breaking up Big Tech at debate | Critics pounce as Facebook's Libra stumbles | Zuckerberg to be interviewed by Fox News | Twitter details rules for political figures' tweets O'Rourke rips Bill O'Reilly: The problem with our economy is 'a disgraced TV host like you makes millions' MORE's statement about taking away guns," Trump said. "A lot of the Republicans and some Democrats now are afraid to do anything to go down that slippery slope. A lot of people think this is just a way of taking away guns. And that's not good. Because we're not going to allow that."

Trump was expected to endorse a set of gun control proposals on Thursday, but Sen. John CornynJohn CornynTrump slams 'very dumb' O'Rourke for proposals on guns, tax exempt status for churches GOP cautions Graham against hauling Biden before Senate Succession at DHS up in the air as Trump set to nominate new head MORE (R-Texas), who is immersed in Senate negotiations, said that timetable was thrown off by the strong pushback to Barr’s background check proposal. 

Trump gave Senate Republicans no indication Thursday how far he would go to address gun violence when he met with a group of GOP senators at the White House to discuss the renewable fuel standard.

Before the meeting, Republicans thought Trump might use the opportunity to bridge differences between Toomey, the leading proponent of expanded background checks, and Cruz, the most outspoken skeptic.

Instead, Trump spoke briefly to Toomey about his proposal to expand background checks for all gun show and internet sales, offering some encouragement but dropping no hints about whether he would ultimately support the measure. 

“The president didn’t tip his hand. He and I had a brief exchange,” Toomey told The Hill after the meeting. “I remain cautiously optimistic. I think there’s a path forward.”

Toomey said he didn’t have any exchange with Cruz about background checks.

Sen. Joe ManchinJoseph (Joe) ManchinOvernight Energy: Perry to step down as Energy secretary | Future of big-game hunting council up in the air | Dems lose vote against EPA power plant rule Senate Dems lose forced vote against EPA power plant rule Schumer seeks focus on health care amid impeachment fever MORE (D-W.Va.), who is co-leading bipartisan talks on background checks, said negotiators are “still in a holding pattern” because of Trump’s indecision.

A senior Republican senator told The Hill that without Trump’s endorsement of legislation to expand background checks, the proposal won’t pass.

The lawmaker said the leading alternative would be a legislative package that combines a bill sponsored by Cruz and Sen. Chuck GrassleyCharles (Chuck) Ernest GrassleyLawmakers from both sides of the aisle mourn Cummings GOP cautions Graham against hauling Biden before Senate Farmers: New Trump ethanol proposal reneged on previous deal MORE (R-Iowa) and one under negotiation by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamPelosi, Schumer hit 'flailing' Trump over 'sham ceasefire' deal Pompeo to meet Netanyahu as US alliances questioned Overnight Defense — Presented by Boeing — Pence says Turkey agrees to ceasefire | Senators vow to move forward with Turkey sanctions | Mulvaney walks back comments tying Ukraine aid to 2016 probe MORE (R-S.C.) and Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.).

The Cruz-Grassley bill would fix holes in the National Instant Criminal Background Check System and crack down on straw purchasers of firearms, while the legislation discussed by Graham and Blumenthal would provide grants to states to fund “red flag” laws, which empower law enforcement officials to confiscate guns from people deemed dangerous.

Cruz made a pitch for his bill at a lunch meeting of the Senate Republican Steering Committee on Wednesday, according to a senator who attended, and later told reporters that it would be preferable to expanding background checks along the lines of what Toomey has proposed.

Brett Samuels contributed.