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Republicans Befuddled By Trump's Contradictions


President Trump left Washington, D.C., yesterday and left some chaos in his wake. Many Republicans on Capitol Hill seemed to rotate between confusion and frustration. Mr. President contradicted himself and the party on some core issues. NPR congressional reporter Kelsey Snell reports.

KELSEY SNELL, BYLINE: This is how Texas Senator John Cornyn started the debate over preventing mass shootings.


JOHN CORNYN: What I don't want to do is leave here this week and go back home to Texas and say we failed to do anything to try to address these tragedies.

SNELL: That was Tuesday. Cornyn is taking the lead on a bill called Fix NICS that would update the national background check system to buy guns. The very next day, Cornyn sat next to President Trump at an hour-long televised meeting as Trump up-ended the whole debate.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Fix NICS has some really good things in it, but it would be nice if we could add everything onto it. And maybe you change the title.

SNELL: Just 20 minutes later, Trump seemed to suggest a piecemeal approach might be better for some things.


TRUMP: I think that maybe that bill will someday pass, but it should pass as a separate.

SNELL: At Wednesday's meeting, Republicans scrambled to keep up with Trump in front of a live TV audience. And that continued in the halls of the Capitol. There were Republicans who said they didn't tune in and senators who dashed into elevators to avoid questions entirely. And then there were the ones who were caught off guard completely.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Can we ask you about the steel and aluminum tariff?

SNELL: On Thursday afternoon, Ohio Republican Rob Portman stepped out of a weekly policy lunch and into a crowd of reporters. They were asking for his thoughts about an announcement that seemed to surprise even the president's staff. Trump said he would impose steep new tariffs on aluminum and steel imports.


ROB PORTMAN: First, I didn't know he'd announced anything.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Yes, it's 25 percent on steel and 10 percent on aluminum.

PORTMAN: He was announcing next week after more consideration.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: He's signing next week/ He's already announced.

PORTMAN: OK, right. OK.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: What is your reaction to that?

PORTMAN: Well, look. I need to see exactly what he did.

SNELL: Portman is a former U.S. trade representative, and he says he worries that sweeping tariffs could harm steelworkers in states like Ohio. Others, even South Dakota Senator John Thune, a member of Republican leadership, simply admitted that they didn't know what to say.


JOHN THUNE: Yeah. I mean, I don't know how to explain it (laughter) because I've been in meetings with him on trade. And everybody's been very clear that we think some of the decisions that they're talking about making and policies they're talking about implementing would be very harmful to the economy at a time when it's really taking off. So I don't know.

SNELL: But something started to shift this week. Republicans were willing to directly reject some of Trump's ideas. Take Kentucky Congressman Thomas Massie. Here he is talking about Trump's endorsement of muscular gun restrictions in an interview with NPR's Ari Shapiro.


THOMAS MASSIE: Whoa, what a doozy - you know, President Trump won my district by 40 percent, and I voted for him. But when he's wrong, I'm going to call him out on it.

SNELL: Less than 24 hours later, the president had moved on to another position after meeting with NRA executives. All that has left Congress frozen. Leaders aren't willing to force politically difficult votes on guns or any other controversial legislation without rock-solid confirmation that the president will support them long enough to sign it into law. So next week, the Senate will take up bipartisan banking legislation instead. Kelsey Snell, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kelsey Snell is a Congressional correspondent for NPR. She has covered Congress since 2010 for outlets including The Washington Post, Politico and National Journal. She has covered elections and Congress with a reporting specialty in budget, tax and economic policy. She has a graduate degree in journalism from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. and an undergraduate degree in political science from DePaul University in Chicago.