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With Focus On Guns, Trump Warns Conservatives Not To Be 'Complacent' In 2018

Updated at 1:50 p.m. ET

During a meandering speech Friday morning at the Conservative Political Action Conference, President Trump doubled down on arming some teachers and school personnel after last week's shooting at a Parkland, Fla., high school that killed 17 people.

His comments were nearly identical to what National Rifle Association leaders proposed during the three-day annual CPAC conference on Thursday, hammering home that the fight to protect the Second Amendment could be in danger if Democrats are successful in the 2018 elections this fall.

"People get complacent. You're happy and you just won. Don't be complacent," Trump warned attendees about the usual voter drop-off for the party in power in a president's first midterms.

"They'll take away your Second Amendment," Trump claimed of Democrats, "which we will never allow that."

Trump then asked the crowd which they'd rather have — their Second Amendment rights or the tax cuts that Republicans recently passed. The deafening applause overwhelmingly came down on the side of gun rights.

The president expanded on his push to arm some school officials as a way to curtail more mass shootings, using almost verbatim language to what NRA Executive Vice President and CEO Wayne LaPierre told the crowd on Thursday — if banks, government buildings, airports and the like are so heavily armed and protected, shouldn't schools be the same way?

"This would be a major deterrent because these people are inherently cowards," Trump said of perpetrators of school shootings. "If this guy thought that people would be shooting bullets back at him, he wouldn't have gone there."

Trump reiterated that he's not talking about arming all teachers — only people who are "adept" at using firearms, such as ex-military personnel or policemen.

"I'd rather have somebody who loves their students and wants to protect them. ... And the teacher would have shot the hell out of him," Trump said of the Florida shoooting.

Trump also got applause from the crowd for strengthening background checks, though he didn't mention another proposal he has hinted he would support: raising the age of purchase for some guns such as semi-automatic weapons from 18 to 21. Florida Gov. Rick Scott proposed such a change on Friday.

Despite being open to some proposals that the gun rights lobby has opposed, Trump has enjoyed deep support from the NRA. He has called group leaders "great people" and "patriots" in recent days and said Friday morning on the way to the conference, "The NRA wants to do the right thing."

The majority of Trump's speech, apart from his comments on guns and a response to Parkland, was a stemwinder that touched on many of his greatest hits of the 2016 campaign. The president admitted he was about to throw out most of his prepared remarks, and that's exactly what he did — barely mentioning what was supposed to be a major part of the speech, new sanctions on North Korea. His comments on the topic came as almost a postscript at the end of his 75-minute address.

Instead, Trump began to relive his victory almost 16 months ago over Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, as the crowd broke into predictable chants of "Lock her up!" The chorus came a day after the announcement of more charges against two former top Trump campaign aides, Paul Manafort and Rick Gates, as part of Justice Department special counsel Robert Mueller's Russia investigation. Gates is expected to plead guilty.

Another familiar topic: the border wall. "You're getting the wall, don't worry — I heard you," Trump promised of his vaunted Southern border wall, as chants of "Build the wall!" rang out. Absent was the campaign-trail call and response that Mexico would pay for the wall — because that country has insisted it will not, and Trump is now seeking congressional funds to build it.

Trump warned of the dangers of gangs such as MS-13 as one reason changes to the legal immigration system and visa lottery system are needed. Congress has so far failed to agree on immigration legislation.

"They're not giving us their best people, folks," Trump said. "I want people coming into this country based on merit."

That segued into a recitation of "The Snake" — a controversial campaign-trail classic where he read the lyrics of a song that details how a woman takes in a sick snake only to have the reptile then bite and kill her. Trump has used it as an allegory for letting in dangerous immigrants who would then harm U.S. citizens.

"You knew damn well I was a snake before you took me in," Trump crescendoed at the end of his reading, to applause.

Trump also reiterated his call for standing for the national anthem — an allusion to his criticism of NFL athletes for kneeling as a form of protest against police brutality. He railed against "fake news," too, frequently chiding journalists at the back of the room.

While much of his speech was used to check off his accomplishments over the past year, from slashing regulations to appointing conservative justices to getting his tax bill passed, there was one failure Trump just couldn't let go — the GOP's inability to deliver on its long-held promise to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act.

There is one person on whom he clearly still puts the blame — Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who helped vote down the Senate bill last summer.

Trump didn't mention McCain by name, but it was clear his criticism — along with boos from the crowd — was directed toward the 2008 GOP presidential nominee, who has been diagnosed with brain cancer.

"Who was that? I don't know," Trump said. "I don't want to be controversial so I won't use his name."

The conservative annual gathering was once skeptical of Trump, a former Democrat. But now Trump has delivered not only the White House but control of the House and Senate as well.

That formerly libertarian-leaning conference's transformation toward a full embrace of Trump began last year, as members of Trump's team took the stage, comparing him to the movement's idol, former President Ronald Reagan.

A year later, almost all the major speakers come from Trump's administration and Cabinet or are top allies. Once-prominent draws such as Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., or his father, former Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, were nowhere to be found. Congressional leaders such as House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., didn't attend either. The one former Trump foe who was on the schedule was Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, once known as "Lyin' Ted" but who has since appeared to mend fences with the president.

Instead, there was a sense of unity projected throughout the conference, which was dotted by attendees wearing the president's signature "Make America Great Again" hats and his branded political merchandise for sale in the exhibit area.

That evolution is something Trump seemed to even relish in Friday's address.

"Remember when I first started running and people said, 'Are you sure he's a conservative?' I think we've proved I'm a conservative," he said.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jessica Taylor is a political reporter with NPR based in Washington, DC, covering elections and breaking news out of the White House and Congress. Her reporting can be heard and seen on a variety of NPR platforms, from on air to online. For more than a decade, she has reported on and analyzed House and Senate elections and is a contributing author to the 2020 edition of The Almanac of American Politics and is a senior contributor to The Cook Political Report.
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