President Trump's public meeting on gun violence demonstrated the promise his administration once held. If he fulfills it now, that would be the first time.
It is the promise of a practical leader, a political outsider unencumbered by rigid ideology or partisanship. The president was active and engaged at this White House session, challenging fellow Republicans and expressing openness to ideas from Democrats as lawmakers discussed responses to the massacre of 17 people at a Florida high school.
Yet the president also displayed the shortcomings that have hobbled his legislative efforts so far on everything but his Republicans-only tax bill. His focus was scattershot, his command of the challenges of achieving results on Capitol Hill weak.
The president showed unfamiliarity with a bipartisan bill expanding background checks for gun purchases that has been debated for years. He asked the sponsors, Republican Sen. Pat Toomey and Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin, to load other controversial steps onto a bill that
itself has been unable to gain the 60 votes it needs to pass.
"I'm not even worried about 60 votes – it should be so easy," the president said. It is not easy.
Encouraging Democrats, the president told House GOP Whip Steve Scalise he opposed including in new legislation a GOP-backed provision expanding authorization for carrying concealed weapons. He challenged his own party to raise the minimum age for buying rifles to 21 from 18.
He invited Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California to explain her support for renewing the lapsed nationwide ban on assault weapons that she helped push through Congress in 1994.
The president turned to Senate Republican Whip John Cornyn, among others, to suggest adding a variety of such steps to a much more limited bipartisan bill the Texan is promoting.
"I like a merger," the businessman-turned-politician declared.
In theory, Congress could combine them. In practice, some of the steps Trump entertained face implacable opposition from the National Rifle Association and its allies among Congressional Republicans.
Indeed, GOP leaders have already said that a higher-age for rifle purchases cannot pass – much less an assault weapons ban. That's why the more Trump kept talking, the more lawmakers of both parties widened their eyes and grinned at each other.
No one can rule out the possibility that the president, with sustained and strenuous effort, could force both the NRA and fellow Republicans to give some ground. Democrats and Republicans alike, attempting to seize the opening Trump created, told him his unremitting support for gun rights so far provides the sort of Nixon-to-China credibility that would smooth the path for change.
But Trump's track record on issues such as health care and immigration means none of them is counting on it. He routinely describes excruciating political challenges as easy – and then shifts his attention to other subjects.
After the failure of Obamacare repeal last year, he vowed to swiftly accept a bipartisan bill to stabilize health care marketplaces. Democratic Sen. Patty Murray and Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander reached a deal, but it has gone nowhere.
In a more recent meeting on immigration, he vowed to embrace any bipartisan deal to protect the legal status of immigrant "dreamers" that also included border security measures. The deal was struck – and rejected by the White House.
With Republicans under pressure in mid-term elections, the activism by student survivors of the Parkland shooting may have changed the national political equation on gun violence. But Trump faces a heavy burden of proof that he is not, as he has famously derided other politicians, "all talk and no action."