Minutes into Donald Trump’s renegade embrace of the left’s wish list for gun control, Republican Rep. Warren Davidson’s phone lines blew up.
“What is Trump doing?” texted one angry constituent from his conservative southwest Ohio district, according to Davidson. “You’ve got to stop this,” demanded another. “That can’t be real,” Davidson recalled thinking as his supporters — all Trump enthusiasts — unloaded on the president.
Then he reviewed the full video clip. “I was like, ‘You’re kidding me, right?’" he said in an interview. "It was a bit shocking.”
Trump threw decades of party orthodoxy on gun rights out the window on Wednesday, as he mused aloud about enacting a comprehensive gun control package and said that due process should come after guns are taken away from dangerous people.
The response on Thursday among congressional Republicans was a mix of disbelief, denial and outrage. The GOP has its rifts on hot-button issues like immigration and health care. But its devotion to expansive gun rights has been close to absolute. As Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) put it, “Everyone says it’s the NRA" that explains the GOP's devotion to the cause. "No. It’s your constituents.”
"Most of the ideas ... will not improve safety of our schools and protect our kids,” said Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.), a staunch gun-rights advocate.
"When it comes down to it, his administration will have a problem,” Rep. Dave Brat (R-Va.) said of Trump’s call to increase the age for some firearm purchases or to seize weapons in some cases without a court order.
But Trump is still president. So they were more prone to rationalize or explain away his apparent openness to an assault weapons ban and more background checks — among other items on gun control advocates’ policy menu — than to go after him directly.
Maybe Trump didn’t mean what he said, some of them said, or perhaps was misunderstood. Others held out that he would come to his senses and quickly end his flirtation with Democrats.
“That was yesterday. This is today,” said Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri, a state that overwhelmingly supported Trump.
“Anytime you have somebody wanting to take away life, liberty or property without due process, that is a concern,” added Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah). “I would like to figure out what he meant.”
“I don’t know how much thought he put into what he actually was saying, in terms of the details of it,” offered Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.).
Republicans have adopted a strategy of not necessarily taking what Trump says in showman mode at face value. Meeting with Democrats and Republicans at the White House in January, he talked up liberal immigration proposals only to later backpedal when conservatives howled.
It doesn't do much good, Republicans reason, to attack the leader of their party over a position he may not hold for more than a couple days.
And practically speaking, it will be nearly impossible for Congress to pass much more than a bill to improve background checks, given the hardened GOP opposition. Even a modest background checks bill is being held up by Lee and other like-minded conservatives, who say it would trample the due process rights of veterans.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has balked at a guns debate in the immediate aftermath of the massacre of 17 people in Florida, a delay that could sap the energy of gun control activists.
“If he embraces some of the things he talked about yesterday, a lot of folks up here on our side are not going to be for some of that stuff,” Thune said of Trump’s gun push.
While Republicans think it’s important to discourage the president from upsetting his rural, gun-loving base, most have taken to privately registering those feelings of discomfort with the White House rather than dressing down the president publicly. It's a courtesy they never extended to President Barack Obama after his calls for tougher background checks.
Instead, most Republicans spent Thursday highlighting the problems with Trump’s seeming support for proposals advocated by the likes of Sens. Dianne Feinstein of California and Chris Murphy of Connecticut.
“I’m a firm believer that due process means that you get a lawyer, a trial, a hearing, an impartial court making a decision before any of your rights taken away,” Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) said of Trump's call to "take the gun first, go through due process second."
House Freedom Caucus founder Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) similarly shied away from criticizing Trump personally, while firmly rejecting the bulk of the ideas the president floated Wednesday. Jordan emphasized similarities with Trump’s viewpoints on arming teachers, and turned his criticisms toward Democrats instead of the White House.
“On the most fundamental level in Florida we had the most systemic failure of government to deal with this bad guy, and now we’re supposed to say the answer is more government?” he asked. “The premise that so many on the left have — so many Democrats — I just don’t buy into that premise.”
But didn’t Trump buy that premise?: “All I know is the answer is not more government,” Jordan replied.
There’s a smaller faction of Capitol Hill Republicans who’ve attacked the president personally on guns. Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.), who leads the House’s gun caucus, tweeted Thursday that “like liberals, @realDonaldTrump mentions Columbine, Pulse, Sandy Hook to motivate gun control, but totally ignores how guns were acquired: columbine: straw purchases, pulse: registered security guard, sandy hook: stolen. DISGRACEFUL!”
There were a few Republicans who applauded Trump. They included Sens. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) and Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), who are pushing proposals to raise the age limit for buying some rifles and to enforce background checks for Internet and gun show sales.
“He was enthusiastic about it,” beamed Toomey after Trump lavished praise on his background checks plan.
The pair of GOP senators and some Democrats, meanwhile, held out hope that perhaps Trump could finally break the entrenched politics of gun control by getting behind "common sense" regulations. It's one thing for a Democratic president calls for stricter gun rules; it's a different equation when a pro-NRA Republican president does so.
“There’s no one concerned about Donald Trump taking their Second Amendment rights away,” Manchin said.
That still might be wishful thinking. Senators said Trump would struggle to move all but a handful of Republicans in the Senate. And in the more conservative House, prospects for new gun laws look even bleaker.
“There’s no changing minds,” Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) said.