Editor's note: Correction appended.
DALLAS — President Donald Trump, addressing the National Rifle Association on Friday, vowed to protect gun rights as long as he leads the country — and ventured into unrelated territory as he doled out endorsements to the state's Republican leaders, among other things.
"Your Second Amendment rights are under siege, but they will never, ever be under siege as long as I am your president," Trump said at the NRA-ILA's Leadership Forum here at the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center.
Despite the venue, Trump's talk of guns was limited as he dived into politics several times, starting with the endorsements for some of Texas' statewide officials who were in attendance. In each case, he echoed support that he had expressed for them on Twitter in the lead-up to the March primaries.
"Gov. Greg Abbott, my friend — where’s Greg?" Trump said. "Greg, I fully endorse you. You are endorsed. He has done a great job."
"Full endorsement for this man — Ted Cruz," Trump said, looking out for the U.S. senator. "Where's Ted?"
He also endorsed Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton and his wife, Angela Paxton, who is running for a Dallas-area state Senate seat.
Trump eschewed the typical gun rights fare for his long-running complaints about special counsel Robert Mueller's probe into possible collusion between Trump's 2016 campaign and Russia. He did so while promoting the jobs report released earlier in the day, showing the lowest unemployment rate since 2000.
"We have the best employment numbers we’ve virtually ever had and yet all we ever hear about is this phony Russia witch hunt," Trump said, going on to read an article aloud about the latest developments in the investigation. "Let me tell you, folks. We’re all fighting battles, but I love fighting these battles."
Still, Trump touted his administration's efforts to increase student safety after a recent string of school shootings, pushing for teachers who are trained to be able to carry concealed weapons.
"There’s no sign more inviting to a mass killer than a sign that declares, 'This school is a gun-free zone. Come in and take us,'" Trump said.
Yet the president kept coming back to politics, including the midterm elections where Republicans are looking to hold on to their congressional majorities amid soaring Democratic enthusiasm. “Get out and vote,” Trump told NRA members. “Don’t be complacent.”
U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, speaking after Trump, also warned of the consequences if Republicans stay home this fall.
"This November, there’s a real danger that Democrats could flip the Congress, the House or the Senate. Can you imagine the anti-gun agenda a liberal from New York City would bring to the Senate floor if he was in charge?" Cornyn asked, alluding to Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-New York.
Before Trump spoke, the NRA crowd heard a more on-message speech from Vice President Mike Pence, who promised NRA members they have "two friends in the White House." Speaking of recent tragedies involving gun violence, Pence said the Trump administration "will not rest and we will not relent until we end this evil in our time."
"We will continue to bring American solutions to bear on this crisis," Pence said. "We will end this evil and protect our liberties at the same time. That’s the American way."
Yet Pence flashed some combativeness as well, challenging the media to tell the "whole story to the American people about firearms in this country." Reporters rightfully focus on the tragedies, Pence complained, but too often "ignore what happens when well-trained, law-abiding gun owners save lives."
One such gun owner was celebrated throughout the program as the NRA forum got underway Friday: Stephen Willeford, who helped take down the gunman in the Sutherland Springs church massacre last year. NRA leaders honored Willeford onstage before the elected officials spoke, and just about every speaker recognized him — including Cruz, who offered a lengthy recollection of Willeford’s heroism on that day in November. Pence and Trump spoke, and the vice president recognized him in his remarks. "Stephen, it is an honor to share this stage with you today," Pence said.
Cruz also used his speech to rail against Bank of America and Citigroup, two national banks that recently adopted new policies limiting the business they do with gun makers. Gun control advocates, Cruz said, have drafted the two banks “to cut off anyone who doesn’t comply with their anti-gun left-wing agenda.”
Cruz then offered an appeal to any company put off by the two banks’ new policies.
“Let me invite you: Come to Texas,” Cruz said. “We have literally thousands of commercial bankers in Texas who would be proud to have your business.”
Cruz was not the only speaker Friday who trumpeted Texas’ gun-loving tradition. The conference also heard from Abbott, who touted an expansion of gun rights in his first term as governor, including open carry and campus carry.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified the title of U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer. He is U.S. Senate minority leader.
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