Editorial cartoon

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders spoke with reporters Friday morning in an apparent effort to clarify some things. By the end, she clarified that President Trump spent much of the week saying things he may not mean, possibly including his remark on confiscating the guns of obviously dangerous people first, then allowing for due process under the law rather than the constitutionally mandated reverse.

In a brief gaggle, Sanders elaborated on where Trump stands on guns and tariffs and insisted Trump hadn’t backed off his words on the former. But her comments bore little resemblance to what Trump had said in recent days. And it was difficult not to view it all as a walkback inspired by Trump’s Thursday night meeting with NRA officials and the backlash against his tariff comments.

Here’s a brief rundown of what Sanders said, compared with what Trump has said:

“Conceptually, he still supports raising the age [for all gun purchases] to 21. But he also knows there’s not a lot of broad support for that. But that’s something he would support. . . . I think he thinks it would probably have more potential in the states than it would at the federal level.”

Trump on Wednesday pressed lawmakers repeatedly on inserting this age change into federal legislation. A sampling:

  • On Sens. Patrick Toomey and Joe Manchin, who spearheaded the failed 2013 effort to expand background checks, Trump said: “I think if we’re going to use you as a base, the two of you, I think you’re going to have to iron out that problem. Because I’m asked that question more than almost any other question: ‘Are you going to 21 or not?’ Okay?”
  • He said, “So you have a case right now where somebody can buy a handgun at 21. Now, this is not a popular thing to say, in terms of the NRA, but I’m saying it anyway. I’m going to just have to say it.”
  • - He said, “But you can’t buy a handgun at 18, 19, or 20. You have to wait until you’re 21. But you can buy the gun — the weapon used in this horrible shooting — at 18.”
  • - He said, “We also want things that can be approved. You have to look at the age of 21 with certain types of weapons. I mean, some people aren’t going to like that, but you’re going to have to look at that very seriously.”

Trump suggested repeatedly that raising the age limit was a matter of political will and doing the right thing, even if the NRA doesn’t like it. Now Sanders is suggesting it might be too difficult — despite an NPR poll Friday showing 82 percent of Americans favor the change. That just doesn’t make sense.

Sanders, on what Trump supports on background checks: “Not necessarily universal background checks, but certainly improving the background-check system. He wants to see what that legislation, the final piece of it, looks like. Universal means something different to a lot of people. He certainly wants to focus and improve on the background-check system.”

While Trump hasn’t explicitly called for universal background checks, he has suggested he supports a massive expansion of them. Trump on Wednesday lamented that the Toomey-Manchin bill, which would have expanded background checks to online sales and gun shows, didn’t pass. He suggested former President Obama didn’t push hard enough for it.

In another exchange with Sen. Chris Murphy, Trump suggested strongly that he would push for universal background checks:

Murphy: Ninety-seven percent of Americans want universal background checks. In states that have universal background checks, there are 35 percent less gun murders than in states that don’t have them. And yet, we can’t get it done. There’s nothing else like that, where it works, people want it and we can’t do it.

Trump: But you have a different president now.

Murphy: Well, listen -

Trump: You went through a lot of presidents and you didn’t get it done. You have a different president. And I think, maybe, you have a different attitude, too. I think people want to get it done.

Elsewhere in the meeting, Trump said, “You have to [be] very, very powerful on background checks; don’t be shy.” He also said he wanted something “really strong on background checks.”

The one background-checks bill Trump has voiced support for — a bipartisan bill sponsored by Murphy and Sen. John Cornyn to improve information-sharing — is much more limited, even by the admissions of Cornyn and other senators who support it.

Sanders, on whether Trump’s tariffs decision is final: “This is something he’s wanted to do for a while. Never say never, but I think he’s pretty committed to moving this forward.”

“Never say never?” The president announced Thursday that he would impose a 25 percent tariff on steel imports and a 10 percent tariff on aluminum imports. But he didn’t announce those percentages till the end of an event, when reporters asked him about it. That led to some suggestions that maybe those numbers weren’t ready for public consumption. And judging by Huckabee Sanders’s comments — including at Thursday’s press briefing, in which she said of the 25 percent figure, “I think that’s the intent” — that may be the case.

But here’s the thing: This announcement sent the markets plunging. It inflamed tensions with both China and the European Union. And now Sanders is suggesting there’s a possibility — however small — that it might not be ironclad. That’s a hell of a way to do business.

Of course, it’s pretty par for the course with Trump, as Sanders herself tacitly admitted Friday.

Aaron Blake is senior political reporter for the Washington Post.