Trump upends gun politics — for now

Donald Trump dramatically shook up the firearms debate on Capitol Hill on Wednesday — if he can stick to his guns.

During an hour-long televised meeting with lawmakers in both parties, Trump stiff-armed congressional Republicans’ guns strategy while endorsing some bipartisan ideas Democrats are pushing.

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But as Washington grapples for a response to the Feb. 14 massacre in Parkland, Fla., Trump’s ability to find results will depend on whether he can prod the GOP-led Congress to move beyond its comfort zone on guns.

Members of both parties were highly uncertain on Wednesday about whether Trump would maintain his embrace of gun-control proposals that are bitterly opposed by the National Rifle Association and anathema to many conservatives on Capitol Hill, including expanded background checks and raising the age limit to buy certain rifles to 21.

Several Democrats likened the meeting to Trump’s January push for “comprehensive immigration reform” — another televised summit with lawmakers — which he followed with a head-snapping turnabout against such compromise two days later.

“I’ve been with the president in meetings where he made similar promises,” Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said. “Stay tuned. My advice is hope for the best, don’t be surprised if he changes his mind in 48 hours.”

Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) offered a similar warning: “I’m afraid what we’re going to see is an exact repeat of the pattern we saw before, where the president has a wonderful and constructive and open and bipartisan meeting on immigration, and 48 hours later rejects a strong bipartisan deal,” he said.

Trump’s endorsement of an expanded background checks bill from Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) left both senators enthusiastic about reviving it, despite their failure to win 60 votes in 2013 and 2015 after previous mass shootings.

“The way I take it is, the president’s commitment and passion for this that we saw today I think will remain,” Toomey told reporters. “I think that, over time, can move votes.”

But other Republicans made clear that they see little prospect of moving beyond a narrow, bipartisan proposal to improve background-check record-keeping — despite Trump’s declaration that “it would be nice if we could add everything onto it.”

Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas), who at times was visibly agog during the meeting, said, “I wouldn’t confuse what he said with what can actually pass in terms of people’s views on the Second Amendment, for example.”

Trump is “a unique president,” Cornyn added. “If he was focused on a specific piece of legislation rather than a grab-bag of ideas, then I think he could have a lot of influence. But right now we don’t have that.”

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who is open to barring those younger than 21 from buying the AR-15-style rifles used in the Florida school shooting, recalled that “you saw, even in that room” at the White House on Wednesday, “some hesitation on the age limit.”

The comprehensive package Trump floated would be “ideal,” Rubio told reporters, but “I don’t think it’s likely … knowing this place.”

Perhaps Trump’s most durable move on Wednesday was insisting that House conservatives in the lower chamber abandon their plans to keep an expansion of concealed-carry rights for gun owners attached to the narrow background-checks bill, which would encourage federal agencies and states to submit information on individuals’ criminal histories to the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System.

“You know I’m your biggest fan in the whole world … I’m with you, but let it be a separate bill,” Trump told House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.), who survived a June mass shooting.

The president’s firm stance likely gives House GOP leaders cover to take up the modest gun bill without the concealed-carry language, a long-sought NRA priority, according to senior Republican sources. That’s if the Senate passes any legislation, which is still uncertain. Democrats are balking at swift passage of the “Fix NICS” bill absent a chance to pass more expansive gun control measures. Some conservative Republicans also oppose the legislation.

In fact, Trump used the televised meeting to pointedly challenge fellow Republicans to defy the NRA, despite the influential pro-gun group’s vocal support for his campaign.

When Toomey said that his background-checks bill with Manchin didn’t address the age limit for purchasing AR-15-style rifles, Trump replied, “Because you’re afraid of the NRA, right?”

That rhetorical flirtation left some Democrats hopeful that Trump would keep playing the shake-up-the-system persona that he occasionally deployed on the campaign trail.

“This may be an opportunity,” Rep. Elizabeth Esty (D-Conn.) told reporters after she left the White House meeting. “If the president is willing to use his view of himself as a tough guy, someone who is not bought and paid for, that could be very helpful.”

Rep. Ted Deutch (D-Fla.), whose district includes the high school where more than 17 students and teachers were shot earlier this month, on Wednesday seized the moment to give Trump the “Parkland Strong” bracelet he has worn ever since the massacre. Deutch said he didn’t plan the gesture but “gave it to the president in the hopes that it would remind him” of the tragically commonplace nature of mass shooting commemorations.

The White House is expected to make an announcement on gun violence as soon as this week. But aides won’t say who is taking the policy lead on guns, a job that Vice President Joe Biden held during the Obama administration.

The president has thrown himself into displays of consensus-gathering. In addition to today’s televised roundtable, he’s held public meetings with shooting victims and governors. He’s met privately with executives from the NRA.

And despite Trump’s declaration Wednesday that he had told the group he would “stop this nonsense” of mass shootings, gun advocates are confident that Trump won’t turn against them. Capitol Hill Republicans privately said they expected the president to walk back his comments later this week.

Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.), who’s said he doesn’t see the need for new gun-control bills and opposes the narrow background-checks bill as written, said he wasn’t bothered by Trump’s televised thumbs-up for proposals that Democrats are clamoring to vote on.

“I don’t know” if Trump will reverse himself soon, Kennedy told reporters, “but presidents are people too. They change their minds.”

Lorraine Woellert, Heather Caygle and Rachael Bade contributed to this report.

Hope Hicks resigns: 21 photos of Trump’s right-hand woman

Donald Trump speaks with campaign communications manager Hope Hicks as he arrives for a service at First Presbyterian Church in Muscatine, Iowa, during his presidential campaign in January 2016. “Hope is outstanding and has done great work for the last three years,” Trump said in a statement Wednesday. “She is as smart and thoughtful as they come, a truly great person. I will miss having her by my side.”

Andrew Harnik/AP Photo

Details of ex-railroad chief’s side hustle revealed

The former top federal railroad regulator’s side gig as a public relations consultant for a Mississippi sheriff was more extensive than previously revealed, records obtained by POLITICO show.

Heath Hall apparently returned reporters’ phone calls, fielded a complaint about a bad link on a jail website and weighed in on coverage of a dog-fighting arrest during the nearly seven months he was the de facto head of the Federal Railroad Administration, according to emails provided by the government of Madison County, Miss. He also communicated with county officials about his firm’s PR work and regularly submitted invoices for its services — sending one such email just hours after a fatal Amtrak crash in Washington state.

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Hall took a leave of absence from the agency in January due to what the agency said was a family emergency, three months after telling Sheriff Randy Tucker by email that “I am just not happy here” and that the “bottom line is that I am a Mississippi boy.” He resigned from DOT Feb. 10 after POLITICO raised questions about whether he had continued running his PR business on the side.

Days later, Hall told his hometown newspaper that he hadn’t done any work for the sheriff while running the railroad agency — “not one second of one day, period.”

“I did not work one single time on anything related to my clients,” Hall told the Madison County Journal in a story published Feb. 14. “It’s really hard to moonlight when you’re working 12-14 hours a day.”

Hall told the Clarion Ledger that he resigned partly because “I did not not feel that the department should have to go through this POLITICO story. Absolutely none of it is true, absolutely guaranteed.”

Hall has not responded to POLITICO’s requests to discuss his tenure as acting administrator at the FRA, a $1.7 billion-a-year agency that lacked a permanent leader for more than a year while dealing with a rising trend of rail-related deaths. President Donald Trump’s pick to lead the agency, former Conrail President Ron Batory, was sworn in as administrator Wednesday.

Also on Wednesday, the Department of Transportation defended its decision to tap Hall for the FRA post last year, citing his past work as director of public affairs for former Mississippi Gov. Kirk Fordice and an internship he had at the railroad agency that appears to have occurred during the George H.W. Bush administration.

“Mr. Hall was required to comply with all required federal ethics and legal requirements,” a DOT spokesperson said. The department did not offer any reaction specifically to the newly released emails, which POLITICO obtained through a public records request to Madison County, Miss.

Besides his FRA internship, Hall had also worked early in his career for the deputy secretary’s office at DOT and served as an intern in the White House Office of Political Affairs during the first Bush administration, according to his now-defunct FRA bio page. He has referred to Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, who also worked at DOT during Bush’s presidency, as his former boss.

Hall, who runs a PR and consulting firm called Strategic Marketing Group LLC in Madison, pledged in his federal financial disclosure form last year that the business “will remain dormant during Federal service.” State records indicate his wife, Wendy, legally took over from him as the company’s “Manager, Member, President” in May.

But the new documents show that his involvement with the firm and its Mississippi clients didn’t end after he was sworn in as FRA’s deputy administrator on June 23. He was quickly named acting administrator; Batory wasn’t nominated for the post until July 10.

On June 30, a Friday morning, Hall responded swiftly after a Madison County official asked to correct a link on the county’s jail handbook site, one email shows. Hall dispatched web designer Addison Hall to handle the matter but continued participating in an email chain on the issue throughout the afternoon.

On Tuesday, Aug. 22, a county official forwarded Hall a voicemail from someone at Jackson, Miss., television station WAPT. Within a couple hours, Hall responded: “I got him.”

The next day, Hall responded in the evening to emails from Tucker’s administrative assistant about an inquiry from that station. He wrote that he had “returned calls to all of the stations with the exception of WAPT. The Sheriff has suggested in the past not to call him back because he always gets the stories wrong so I do not call him back.”

Hall also communicated with the sheriff during an email exchange that began on the morning of Wednesday, Oct. 25, about work he said he was doing related to an advertisement for the sheriff. “By the way, I want to come home,” Hall wrote, and proceeded to ask Tucker for advice on whether he should leave Washington.

An Oct. 24 email sent by Sandra Buckley, a public relations colleague brought on to help Hall’s PR company with Tucker’s account, said Hall was “managing this project.”

The evening of Tuesday, Nov. 7, Hall sent the sheriff an email regarding Madison County deputies’ arrests of four men in an alleged dog-fighting ring, noting “lots of good media on this.”

Hall also regularly emailed county officials about invoices for his firm’s services. He sent one such invoice the evening of Dec. 18, a few hours after an Amtrak train derailed in Washington state, killing three people and injuring dozens, in an accident that called attention to the slow progress in implementing a congressionally mandated crash prevention technology.

“Jeremy: Just getting it to you a little early,” he wrote. “Merry Christmas.”

Beyond the emails, as POLITICO has previously reported, Hall’s name appeared as a spokesman for the sheriff in at least two Mississippi media reports in August, and a former FRA employee said she had fielded at least three requests from a Mississippi television journalist seeking to speak with Hall last summer. The Madison County Journal reported this month that it also received a press release from him in July, something he told the newspaper he did not remember.

Hall also dealt with at least one Madison County official in his capacity as the railroad agency’s acting administrator on the rising problem of deadly accidents at rail crossings. In September, he sent an email from his FRA account to David Bishop, a member of the county’s elected board of supervisors, and to another FRA employee, whom he thanked for a readout of FRA’s contacts with Bishop and state and railroad officials related to a fatal May 2016 accident at a railroad crossing in Mississippi.

He later referred to that accident, which killed three people, during a Sept. 19 speech to the American Association of State Highway Transportation Officials’ rail committee in Oakland, Calif., according to prepared remarks posted on FRA’s website. He noted that his “former crisis public relations firm was called out” to the crash, adding: “It was at that moment that I decided that I was going to lend my voice in reversing this trend.”

Still, he soon made it clear he was ready to return to Mississippi.

“I just got back into Mississippi yesterday — so very happy to be home,” he wrote to Tucker’s deputy on Jan. 22, attaching another invoice.

He told the Madison County Journal that “I will not miss Washington D.C.”

“It is a ‘gotcha’ community that takes great faith in ruining someone’s reputation and they do it as a sport,” he said.

Gowdy seeks answers on allegations of excessive spending, retaliation at HUD

Try Gowdy is pictured. | Getty Images

Rep. Trey Gowdy asked HUD Secretary Ben Carson for all papers “referring or relating to redecorating, furnishing, or equipping your office since January 1, 2017.” | Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Rep. Trey Gowdy, the chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, on Wednesday requested that Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson turn over all documents and communications pertaining to allegations by a high-ranking civil servant that she was the target of reprisals after sounding the alarm on agency spending.

“To help the Committee determine whether HUD adhered to the applicable spending limitations while redecorating your office, please provide… [a]ll documents and communications referring or relating to redecorating, furnishing, or equipping your office since January 1, 2017,” Gowdy, a South Carolina Republican, wrote to Carson, according to excerpts of the letter released Wednesday.

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The chairman added: “In addition, please arrange to brief the Committee on this matter after producing the requested documents and information.”

HUD official Helen Foster, in a sworn complaint to the Office of Special Counsel, raised concerns over spending at the department, including Carson’s plans for redecorating.

According to Foster’s lawyers, she was demoted without warning or explanation in July 2017, less than a year after being promoted to the role of chief administrative officer. In her position, Foster oversaw spending and office space at HUD.

In January 2017, Foster’s legal team says, she was instructed to “find money” for redecorating after Carson’s wife sought funds to purchase furniture. The amount was said to have exceeded the $5,000 legal limit, prompting Foster to voice her objection.

Craig Clemmensen, the designated acting secretary at the time, replied that the $5,000 “will not even buy a decent chair,” according to the complaint.

Foster also expressed concerns over the more than $10 million departmental shortfalls that took place under her predecessor at HUD.

Department officials reportedly also spent $31,000 on a new dining set for Carson’s office in late 2017.