A conservative Parkland student helps set the agenda in Washington

Kyle Kashuv, who survived the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas last month, speaks during a news conference in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday, March 13, 2018, to call for swift passage of a bill to address school violence.
Kyle Kashuv, who survived the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas last month, speaks during a news conference in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday, March 13, 2018, to call for swift passage of a bill to address school violence. TNS

Kyle Kashuv was in a bind.

The 16-year-old Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School student, who opposes gun control, had just finished a news conference with Sen. Marco Rubio and the family of a Parkland shooting victim on Capitol Hill, and his next engagement was coming up.

One problem: He needed someone to adjust his tie, which was left in a knot so he could slip the loop around his head.

“Can you help me with this?” Kashuv asked a reporter and a Senate aide as he fiddled with his phone. “We’ve got to call an Uber to the White House.”

Kashuv, the high school junior who vaulted to national prominence as a conservative counterweight to the vocal Parkland students who favor tighter gun-control legislation, is back in Washington for a second week of high-profile meetings, and he’s setting the agenda in the nation’s capital.

Senators from both parties are rearranging their schedules to speak with him, television channels are clamoring to get him on air and he even brokered a Skype conversation between Rubio and YouTube video blogger Jake Paul. He has already met with President Donald Trump once, and plans to be at the White House before and during the March for Our Lives on March 24.

“In the media [Trump] is portrayed as ignorant and unknowing and cold, but in real life he’s very smart and very quick and he’s very caring,” Kashuv said. “When I met with the president, first it shocked me that I met with the president but … he was just so nice. I think it’s amazing that in the busiest day of his entire administration with the steel tariffs and North Korea, he found the time, took everyone out of his office, and we sat there and talked for a while and that’s something that very rarely occurs.”

Kashuv and his 19-year-old right-hand man, Michael Gruen, who coordinated Kashuv’s meetings on Capitol Hill and the White House with help from former White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci and former White House press secretary Sean Spicer, aren’t in Washington solely for the photo-ops. They want Rubio and others in Congress to pass a bill that provides funds for school safety and coordination between school districts and law enforcement.

Just hours after 17 people were killed in a mass shooting at their high school in Parkland, Fla., students turned to social media to advocate for more gun control.

“There’s nothing here about gun control,” Kashuv said, referring to a bill called the Stop School Violence Act. “It reached all the issues of the Parkland shooting without debating gun control. We’re not going to have the gun control debate soon, it’s just not going to happen.”

While a gun control debate may not happen on the House and Senate floors before the 2018 elections, activists on both sides continue to raise awareness one month after Parkland. Steps away from Kashuv’s news conference with Rubio on Tuesday were 7,000 pairs of shoes laid out on the Capitol lawn by gun-control activists, a makeshift memorial for children killed by gun violence.

Kashuv said he began speaking out against gun control measures, like an assault-weapons ban, after dozens of Parkland students traveled to Tallahassee in buses to demand gun control a week after the shooting. He didn’t grow up around guns, but is adamant that gun-control legislation infringes on the Second Amendment. He’s had conversations with some of the vocal student leaders pushing for tighter gun laws, including David Hogg and Cameron Kasky, but said “they’ve cut off ties with a lot of people” with actions such as Hogg’s bragging about hanging up on the White House when asked to attend a listening session with Trump.

“On the advocacy side they’re great, they’ve raised so much” money, Kashuv said of the students who are pushing for gun control. “Being able to represent your political beliefs whether or not your friends agree with it is a great thing and I think at Stoneman Douglas people are starting to be outspoken, whether they are Democrat or Republican, simply about their beliefs, and that’s good.”

While Kashuv has been embraced by conservative media outlets and Republicans on Capitol Hill, he has also met with a number of Democrats, including Florida Sen. Bill Nelson and Connecticut Sen. Chris Murphy, an outspoken advocate for gun control after the Sandy Hook school shooting.

He’s also pragmatic, arguing that his preference after getting the Stop School Violence Act passed would be passing a bill sponsored by Texas Sen. Ted Cruz that loosens restrictions on the transportation and sale of firearms along with a series of school-safety measures. But he admitted the Cruz bill isn’t likely to garner much bipartisan support.

Kashuv also has praise for Rubio, who received criticism from Parkland students at a televised town hall event one week after the shooting. Kashuv said that while at the White House last week, Rubio found him before a meeting with video game executives and gave him a hug.

“There are real humans here,” Kashuv said. “They’re portrayed on TV as kind of distant and that they don’t have any personal connections and Washington has shown me that there are true, caring human beings here that only want good for the American people.”

Kashuv also met Vice President Mike Pence on Tuesday.

But even though Kashuv and Gruen can rattle off the names of senators and Cabinet officials like seasoned Washington lobbyists, they’re also fast-talking teenagers who sometimes stray from the topic at hand.

As Gruen texted with the Israeli ambassador to set up a potential meeting, Kashuv was eager to show off his freshly knotted tie.

“Tell me you’re impressed with my tie, Michael, tell me you’re impressed with my suit,” Kashuv said.

“I’m not impressed,” Gruen replied, never looking up from his phone.

Alex Daugherty: 202-383-6049, @alextdaugherty

Related stories from Miami Herald