DALLAS — President Donald Trump came to the 147th annual meeting of the National Rifle Association on Friday to declare his abiding allegiance to the Second Amendment, warn against complacency in the midterm elections, bestow his re-election blessings on Gov. Greg Abbott and U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and reprise his condemnation of sanctuary cities and his low opinion of Mexican immigrants.
“Remember what I said the first day? They’re not sending their finest, I can tell you. We are getting some real beauties here,” Trump told an enthusiastic midday crowd at the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center. He was recalling his defining political moment nearly three years ago when he announced his unlikely candidacy for president at Trump Tower, declaring, in an efficient demolition of political correctness, “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. … They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”
Now presiding of over a tumultuous presidency, Trump told the gun owners, “Your Second Amendment rights are under siege, but they will never ever be under siege as long as I am your president.”
But Trump warned that his presidency, and their rights, could fall victim to complacency.
“History says that when you win the presidency, you get complacent. You know the feeling? Like 90 percent of the time you win the presidency and for whatever reason you lose the midterm,” Trump said. “We can’t let that happen. And the word is complacent.”
“We cannot get complacent,” Trump said.
Trump’s appearance at the NRA, speaking in a political show of force that included Vice President Mike Pence, Abbott, Cruz and U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, comes in a moment of perceived political peril for gun rights after the mass shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., in February, and Republican fears of a “blue wave” in November.
“There is a real danger that Democrats could flip the House or the Senate,” warned Cornyn, the No. 2 Republican in the Senate.
Wayne LaPierre, the NRA leader whose stern visage stared down from banners adorning the convention center, said the organization’s critics “are so busy dancing on the NRA’s grave, they can’t see the truth right in front of them.”
“They can’t see all of you,” said LaPierre, who said that NRA membership has reached an all-time high.
“We were born for this moment, this opportunity to defend the freedom that runs in our blood and pounds in our heart,” LaPierre said.
LaPierre, following Pence and Trump, asked the crowd, “What about having both of them here? What do you think of that?”
Trump began by lavishing praised on the Texas political leaders sharing the stage with him Friday.
“Boy, do we love Texas. Where’s (Gov.) Greg Abbott? I fully endorse you,” Trump said. “Fully endorsed.”
The same for Cornyn, who the president said had been with him all the way, and Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton and Paxton’s wife, Angela, who is the Republican nominee for a state Senate seat. “Fully endorsed.” And, Trump said, “Where’s Ted Cruz? Fully endorsed.”
Cruz, formerly a bitter Trump rival and now a loyal Senate ally, is facing a re-election challenge from U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke, D-El Paso, who, Cruz noted Friday, is raising more money than any Democratic Senate candidate in the nation. A video of Trump’s endorsement quickly made its way to a Cruz campaign page.
The president’s speech was a potpourri of classic Trump touches, detours and asides.
“This is a record crowd, an all-time record crowd,” Trump said. “It’s nice to set records.”
He said rapper and designer Kanye West “must have some power,” referring to Reuters weekly tracking poll showing his support among African-American men jumping from 11 percent in a poll released April 22 to 22 percent in a poll released a week later.
“One week,” Trump said. “Thank you, Kanye.”
Trump talked about being powerfully moved by meeting the families of Parkland school shooting victims — “our hearts break,” he said — and of the necessity of strengthening gun background checks, being attuned to mental health issues, hardening schools and getting well-trained armed guards inside them.
No sign is more inviting to a school shooter than “this is a gun-free zone,” Trump said. The best deterrent is “the knowledge that their attack will end their life and end in total failure.”
Trump also assailed sanctuary cities — “something that’s actually becoming very unpopular,” he said.
“We have the worst immigration laws anywhere in the world. We have the worst laws,” Trump said. “We have laws written by people that truly could not love our country.”
The hero of the day, even more than Trump, was Stephen Willeford, the humble retired plumber and NRA instructor who last year grabbed his AR-15 and confronted the gunman in Sutherland Springs, the worst church shooting in American history, wounding him and sending him fleeing.
“We’ve had a lot of images of good guys with guns stopping bad guys with guns, but they rarely get covered in the press,” Cruz told reporters after his speech, in which he retold Willeford’s story.
On Friday, Willeford spoke quietly to the throng of gun owners, saying the credit goes to Jesus.
Willeford was also honored with a lifetime NRA membership.
“Stephen,” Pence said in his remarks, “it is an honor to share this stage with you today.”
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