PHOENIX — President Donald Trump is blaming the media for the widespread condemnation of his response to a Charlottesville, Virginia, protest organized by white supremacists that led to the killing of a counter-protester.
Trump opened his political rally in Phoenix with a call for unity, saying, “What happened in Charlottesville strikes at the core of America and tonight, this entire arena stands united in forceful condemnation of the thugs that perpetrated hatred and violence.”
But he quickly trained his ire on the media, shouting that he “openly called for healing unity and love” in the immediate aftermath of Charlottesville and claiming the media had misrepresented him. He read from his three responses to the violence — getting more animated with each one.
Democrats and fellow Republicans had denounced Trump for placing blame for the Charlottesville violence on “both sides.”
Trump spoke after Vice-President Mike Pence and others called repeatedly for unity.
Housing Secretary Ben Carson and Dr. Alveda King, the niece of civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr., were among the openers. Franklin Graham, son of the evangelist Billy Graham, led the rally-goers in prayer, saying, “We’re divided racially, and we’re adrift morally.”
Outside the Phoenix convention centre, shouting matches and minor scuffles erupted between Trump supporters and protesters gathered near the site of his latest campaign rally. Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton had asked Trump to delay his political event to allow for more time of national healing after Charlottesville.
Trump teased a pardon for former sheriff Joe Arpaio, asking the crowd what they thought of him. Loud cheers erupted. The former Maricopa County sheriff is awaiting sentencing after his conviction in federal court for disobeying court orders to stop his immigration patrols.
“So was Sheriff Joe convicted for doing his job?” Trump asked. “I’ll make a prediction: I think he’s going to be just fine.”
Earlier, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Trump wouldn’t discuss or take action on a pardon “at any point today,” even though the president had told Fox News he was considering it.
Trump said at the rally that the only reason he wouldn’t make a move from the stage was to avoid controversy for the moment.
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 clear theme. Although Trump’s high-profile warm-up acts suggested the president’s speech would be about unity, the president was more intent on settling scores.
Neither of Arizona’s two Republican senators appeared with Trump.
Republican Sen. Jeff Flake, a conservative, has been a frequent target of Trump’s wrath.
The president tweeted last week: “Great to see that Dr. Kelli Ward is running against Flake Jeff Flake, who is WEAK on borders, crime and a non-factor in Senate. He’s toxic!” Flake has been on tour promoting his book that says the Republican Party’s embrace of Trump has left conservatism withering.
Ward planned to attend Trump’s rally, sparking talk that the president could take the politically extraordinary step of endorsing her from the stage over an incumbent Republican senator.
In a modest but telling swipe at Ward and, by extension, at Trump, the Senate Leadership Fund, a political committee closely aligned with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, is spending $10,000 on digital ads that say of her, “Not conservative, just crazy ideas.”
Arizona’s other senator, John McCain, is undergoing treatment for an aggressive form of brain cancer. Trump has been critical of McCain for voting against a Republican health care bill.
Tuesday’s events put Trump in more comfortable political territory than in recent days.
He began his Arizona visit with a brief trip to the southern edge of the country.
While touring a Marine Corps base in Yuma that is a hub of operations for the U.S. Border Patrol, Trump inspected a drone and other border equipment on display in a hangar.
Trump shook his head as he was shown a series of everyday objects, such as a fire extinguisher, that had been refashioned to secretly transport drugs across the border. Afterward, he spent about 20 minutes greeting service members in the grueling, 106-degree heat, signing caps with his “Make America Great Again” campaign slogan and posing for selfies on the tarmac just steps from Air Force One.
Upending a campaign vow to end the country’s longest war, Trump on Monday announced in a national address a plan to maintain to a U.S. military presence in Afghanistan. Senior U.S. officials said Trump’s strategy may involve sending up to 3,900 more troops, with some deployments beginning almost immediately.
Some of Trump’s core voters had already been unhappy about the recent ouster of conservative Steve Bannon as White House chief strategist.
Bannon had made it his mission to remind Trump of what his most fervent supporters want from his presidency. Some conservative strategists have openly worried that without Bannon around, Trump will be too influenced by establishment Republicans on issues such as Afghanistan policy.