DALLAS — Taking a break from the escalating pressures of the Russia probe and the Stormy Daniels case, President Donald Trump returned to his supporters at the National Rifle Association's annual convention on Friday.
President Trump, speaking on Air Force One on the way to the event in Dallas, called the NRA a "truly great organization that loves this country."
His with the NRA came after he temporarily strayed from their strong anti-gun control message in the wake of the school shooting in Parkland, Florida — only to later return to the fold.
Last year, President Trump became the first sitting president to appear in more than 30 years, declaring that the "assault" on the Second Amendment had ended. But this year's speech comes as the issue of gun violence takes on new urgency after one of the deadliest school shootings in U.S. history.
Student survivors of the Feb. 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School that left 17 people dead are now leading a massive national gun control movement. While the shooting has not led to major changes from the White House or the Republican-led Congress, it did — at least briefly — prompt President Trump to declare that he would stand up to the powerful gun lobby. He later backpedaled on that tough talk.
President Trump's attendance at this year's NRA convention was announced just days ago and came after Vice President Mike Pence already was scheduled to appear. Asked why President Trump was attending, given the current political tensions around gun violence, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said this week that safety was a "big priority." But, she added, "We also support the Second Amendment, and strongly support it, and don't see there to be a problem with speaking at the National Rifle Association's meeting."
President Trump has long enjoyed strong backing from the NRA, which spent about $30 million in support of his presidential campaign. The NRA showcased its high-profile guests for the event, with NRA Executive Director Chris Cox saying on Twitter: "We are honored to celebrate American Freedom with @realDonaldTrump, @VP Mike Pence and others. #2A #watchtheleftmeltdown"
But one of the Parkland student survivors, David Hogg, was critical of President Trump's planned attendance.
"It's kind of hypocritical of him to go there after saying so many politicians bow to the NRA and are owned by them," Hogg said. "It proves that his heart and his wallet are in the same place."
During a televised gun meeting with lawmakers in late February, President Trump wagged his finger at a Republican senator and scolded him for being "afraid of the NRA," declaring that he would stand up to the group and finally get results in quelling gun violence.
He praised members of the gun lobby as "great patriots" but declared "that doesn't mean we have to agree on everything. It doesn't make sense that I have to wait until I'm 21 to get a handgun, but I can get this weapon at 18." He was referring to the AR-15 the Parkland shooting suspect is accused of using.
Those words rattled some Republicans in Congress and sparked hope among gun-control advocates that, unlike after previous mass shootings, tougher regulations would be enacted this time. But President Trump later retreated on those words, expressing support for modest changes to the background check system, as well as arming teachers.
After expressing interest in increasing the minimum age to purchase a so-called assault weapon to 21, President Trump later declared there was "not much political support" for the move. He then pushed off the issue of age restrictions by assigning the question to a commission.
President Trump's moves have drawn concerns from both sides of the gun debate.
"He ran as supposedly the best friend of the Second Amendment and has become gun grabber in chief," said Michael Hammond, legislative counsel to the Gun Owners of America. Hammond said his members were upset President Trump had approved a spending bill that included background check updates. "We're not confident at all. We are very disappointed."
Kristin Brown, of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, said President Trump had offered mixed messages since the Parkland shooting.
"Which Donald Trump is going to show up?" she asked. "Will it be the one who sympathized with the Parkland students he brought to the White House, the one who met with members of the Senate ... or the one who had burgers" with NRA head Wayne LaPierre.
Several groups announced plans to protest over the weekend. The protesters will include parents of those killed in Parkland and in other shootings.