As protesters massed on the streets of Phoenix, President Trump on Tuesday unleashed a vitriolic, 76-minute speech mocking those who considered his response after the Charlottesville white supremacist march as racist, adopted racially charged language and hinted that he would pardon former Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio, long accused of brutality against Latinos.
He re-read for more than 16 minutes the remarks he had uttered after violence in Virginia claimed the life of a woman protesting the white supremacists, omitting his remarks in which he said that both sides were to blame and occupied the same plane in his view.
“The words were perfect,” he said.
But even as he sought to dismiss one racially fraught controversy, he ignited another with words that seemed to promise a pardon to Arpaio, who last month was convicted of contempt of court for refusing to halt his habit of stopping Latinos based solely on a suspicion that they might be living in the United States without proper papers.
“Do the people in this room like Sheriff Joe?” Trump asked a crowd of thousands in the Phoenix Convention Center of Arpaio, who served 24 years as Maricopa County sheriff before being defeated in November. “So was Sheriff Joe convicted for doing his job?”
“But you know what? I’ll make a prediction: I think he’s going to be just fine,” Trump said, eliciting a roar. “But I won’t do it tonight because I don’t want to cause any controversy.” He added that Arpaio should “feel good.”
Trump’s words on Arpaio, as well as his repeated suggestion that it was time to return to law and order, carried the whiff of past campaigns, such as those carried out by George Wallace, the segregationist presidential candidate and governor of Alabama.
And they suggested that it was folly for Republicans to wish for the one thing many keenly wanted — for Trump to revert to the moderate, sober president who only 24 hours earlier had acknowledged the need to change his mind on Afghanistan with a patient speech. It was clear on Tuesday, in both Trump’s rhetoric and his freewheeling, far more enthusiastic visage, that the president who came to office tossing jaw-dropping assertions at voters would continue to favor that approach as president.
He saved his greatest criticism for the media, whom he blamed for misconstruing his remarks after Charlottesville. His supporters backed him up by screaming at reporters at the rally.
“It’s time to expose the media … for their role in fomenting divisions in the country,” Trump declared.
“They are trying to take away our history and heritage … we’re smart people and these are truly dishonest people.”
He added: “I really think they don’t like our country. The only people giving a platform to these hate groups is the media itself.”
For all the mockery and bluster the president put forth, however, there was a subtext of political fear.
Recent polls have indicated that even among Republicans, Trump is losing strength. The president was introduced Tuesday with a bevy of friends — Vice President Mike Pence, preacher Franklin Graham, Martin Luther King Jr’s niece Alveda King and Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson.
Their multiracial tableau seemed intended to bolster the president’s image. When he took the stage, Trump took pains to try to recreate the “silent majority” who he has long said delivered him the presidency.
“The media can attack me, but where I draw the line is where they attack you,” he said, after almost half an hour of defending himself.
He described his supporters as “honest, hard-working, taxpaying” Americans whose dreams he shared.
“You always understood what Washington, D.C., did not — our movement is a movement built on love,” he said.
The protests that greeted Trump in Phoenix were largely peaceful, although later in the night the actions grew more violent and tear gas was fired.
Still, the signs of division were many. When Trump traveled from his first stop at an immigration facility in Yuma to Phoenix, Arizona Republican Gov. Doug Ducey greeted him at the airport. But he did not attend the rally.
“Gov. Ducey’s focus has been working with law enforcement toward a safe event in downtown Phoenix,” his spokesman said in a statement to the Arizona Republic.
Trump did his best to sow division elsewhere in the state’s politics.
Beside the explosive possibility of pardoning Arpaio, Republicans here feared that Trump would use the occasion to endorse a challenger to GOP Sen. Jeff Flake, a longtime nemesis.
Trump last week praised the sole Republican challenger at the moment, former state Sen. Kelli Ward, and many here feared he would ignite an internal party conflagration that would deliver the Senate seat to Democrats.
He did not endorse Ward — or any of the other candidates considering the race — but mocked Flake and the state’s senior senator, John McCain, even after the Republican’s recent diagnosis of brain cancer.
Raising the subject of the failed GOP effort to repeal and replace Obamacare, Trump repeatedly noted that the Senate fell “just one vote away from victory after seven years of everyone proclaiming “repeal and replace.” “One vote,” he said, referring to McCain.
At that, a member of the audience screamed “traitor,” seemingly referring to the Navy veteran who spent years as a Vietnam War prisoner before going into politics.
Trump, adopting a sarcastic tone, characterizing Flake as an inconsequential senator.
“Nobody wants me to talk about him,” Trump said. “Nobody knows who the hell he is….See I haven’t mentioned any names and now everyone is happy.”
The president arrived in a state he won handily nine months ago with his administration reeling, most recently at his own hand.
The president, top aides and family members remain embroiled in a special prosecutor’s investigation into Russian influence in the November election. Unified Republican control of Washington has led to few if any major legislative victories, although he claimed again Tuesday to be the most successful president considering his first six months. A poll released here this week said only 74% of Republicans support Trump, meaning he has lost a significant quarter of his own party base.
For any previous president, that would have meant buckling down and working with Republican leaders in the Senate and the House.
Instead, true to form, Trump on Tuesday criticized the GOP leaders on Capitol Hill, obliquely. He also did something worse: not until more than an hour into his speech did he mention with any detail his own party’s prime desire this fall — tax reform.
It was a passage replete with the Trump approach. First he blasted a threatened Republican senator, Flake — whose loss would give Republicans only 51 seats, the thinnest majority — and then he suggested that Capitol Hill do his bidding.