One day after a searing speech tearing into the media and some Republicans, U.S. President Donald Trump returned Wednesday to calls for unity and love as he spoke to veterans Wednesday at an American Legion conference.
“We are here to hold you up as an example of strength, courage and resolve that our country will need to overcome the many challenges that we face,” Trump told the veterans, speaking in measured tones and adhering to his prepared remarks. He said all Americans must learn the same work ethic, patriotism and devotion as veterans.
The messaging zig-zag appears to reflect the president’s real-time internal debate between calls for moderation and his inclination to let loose. Trump had opened his Tuesday rally in Phoenix much the same way – but quickly erupted in anger, blaming the media for the widespread condemnation of his response to violence at a Charlottesville, Virginia, protest organized by white supremacists.
At the Phoenix rally, he read from his three responses to the racially charged violence, becoming more animated with each one. He withdrew from his suit pocket the written statement he’d read the day a woman was killed by a man who’d plowed a car through counter-protesters, but he skipped over the trouble-causing part that he’d freelanced at the time: his observation that “many sides” were to blame.
That, as well as his reiteration days later that “both sides” were to blame for the violence that led to the death of Heather Heyer and two state troopers, led Democrats and many Republicans to denounce Trump for not unmistakably calling out white supremacists and other hate groups.
The president awoke Wednesday still thinking about the rally, as evidenced by his Twitter account. “Last night in Phoenix I read the things from my statements on Charlottesville that the Fake News Media didn’t cover fairly,” he wrote. “People got it!”
By the time he arrived at the American Legion conference, Trump seemed more congenial. He even thanked Sen. Dean Heller, a Nevada Republican with whom he has openly and repeatedly feuded. He discussed his early efforts to restructure and improve the Veterans Administration.
But Trump wasn’t able to stick to his unity theme Tuesday night. His broadside against the media, and the “fake news” he says is out to get him, was one of several detours he took from remarks prepared for the Phoenix rally. Trump unabashedly acknowledged that his own advisers had urged him to stay on message, and that he simply could not.
He suggested he intends to pardon former Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who is awaiting sentencing in Arizona after his conviction in federal court for disobeying court orders to stop his immigration patrols. After whipping up the crowd about Arpaio, he said he wanted to avoid “controversy” by not speaking about the pardon, but added: “I’ll make a prediction: I think he’s going to be just fine.”
Trump skewered both of Arizona’s Republican senators, insisting that his coy refusal to mention their names showed a “very presidential” restraint. He said his aides had begged him, “Please, please Mr. President, don’t mention any names. So I won’t.” Yet he’d clearly described Sen. John McCain as the reason Congress didn’t repeal and replace the much-maligned Affordable Care Act, and he labeled Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake as “weak” on law enforcement and immigration.
He followed up Wednesday morning on Twitter, writing “Phoenix crowd last night was amazing – a packed house. I love the Great State of Arizona. Not a fan of Jeff Flake, weak on crime & border!”
As for how he would assist with the upcoming Herculean tasks facing Congress – passing tax reform, raising the debt ceiling, and agreeing on a budget – Trump offered little detail. He did threaten that if legislators force a government shutdown “we’re building that wall,” a reference to his campaign promise to close off the border with Mexico.
He also said he thinks the U.S. will “end up probably terminating” the North American Free Trade Agreement with Canada and Mexico “at some point,” though he said he hasn’t made up his mind.
“Personally, I don’t think we can make a deal because we have been so badly taken advantage of,” Trump said.
In the comfort of his most fervent fans, Trump often resurrects his free-wheeling 2016 campaign style, pinging insults at perceived enemies such as the media and meandering from topic to topic without a singular theme. This was Trump’s eighth rally since taking office in January, and each event is attended by supporters screened by his campaign.
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His comfort-level was apparent: As he discussed his responses to Charlottesville, he interrupted himself. “I didn’t want to bore you. You understand where I’m coming from. You people understand.”
Outside the rally, the divisiveness seen across the country was on display.
One man on a loudspeaker said the largely Latino protesters belong in the kitchen. A Trump opponent hoisted a sign depicting the president with horns. A day of noisy but largely peaceful protests turned unruly after his speech, as police fired pepper spray at crowds after someone apparently lobbed rocks and bottles at officers.
— Associated Press writers Jill Colvin, Darlene Superville, Alan Fram in Washington and Josh Hoffner in Phoenix contributed to this report.