Addressing thousands of supporters in Phoenix, Trump went on offense during a 77-minute airing of grievances against his political opponents, while protesters gathered outside.
The commander in chief criticized a war hero with brain cancer and a senator from his own party facing re-election next year on their home turf. He panned the Republican leader of the Senate, whose wife serves in his Cabinet. And he accused members of the media of being unpatriotic.
He also returned to his campaign habit of making bold promises that may prove problematic. He hinted that he may pull the U.S. out of the North American Free Trade Agreement at some point. He teased that he will pardon controversial former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who was convicted of criminal contempt. And he essentially threatened a government shutdown to force Congress to pay for a border wall which he had once promised Mexico would fund.
"If we have to close down our government, we are building that wall,” Trump declared.
Still smarting from the poor reception of his response to the white nationalist violence in Charlottesville, Trump litigated his handling of the issue yet again. He railed against criticism that he had failed to sufficiently denounce white nationalist protesters in his initial remarks as well as at a freewheeling press conference last week.
"The words were perfect," he said.
Trump also repeated the words from his initial response to the protests, which claimed the life of a counterprotester, conveniently leaving out the much-criticized part where he blamed "many sides" of the conflict for the violence.
He also sought to recast the debate, focusing on the Confederate monuments which sparked the protests and again arguing they should not be removed from the public square. "They're trying to take our culture," he said. "They're trying to take our history."
Trump’s stem-winding performance was hardly designed to win over the majority of Americans dissatisfied with his job performance or his incendiary comments on this month’s Charlottesville clashes. With his legislative agenda stalled, the prospect of a government shutdown rising, and scandals of his own creation dominating headlines, Trump sought to rally his core base of supporters.
The freeform performance frequently deviated from the prepared remarks on the teleprompter, as Trump repeated falsehoods about his legislative record and even suggested that news networks were cutting away from his remarks mid-speech. (CNN, his most-frequent target, carried Trump’s speech live in its entirety.)
The beleaguered president trotted out some of his most high-profile surrogates for the rally, including Vice President Mike Pence, HUD Secretary Ben Carson, the niece of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and evangelical leader Franklin Graham. It came as Trump has tested the tolerance of mainstream Republicans, whom he mocked and attacked, and who have grown weary of being forced to defend their party’s nominal leader.
Tellingly, Trump offered only passing mention to his Monday announcement of a new Afghanistan strategy, and made little effort to sell his stalled plans to repeal and replace Obamacare or to reform the nation’s tax code.
Trump expressed frustration that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has resisted his calls to eliminate the filibuster for legislation, and took swings at the lawmakers whose votes he needs for most of his agenda—and whose seats stand in the way of Democrats wielding subpoena power over his administration.
Trump took thinly-veiled shots at Arizona’s two GOP senators, John McCain and Jeff Flake, who have been frequent critics. Although he avoided mentioning their names at the behest of Republican leaders in Washington, Trump’s targets could hardly have been clearer. He bemoaned being “one vote away” on replacing the Affordable Care Act before McCain’s no-vote. And he attacked Flake as someone “who’s weak on borders, who’s weak on crime.” One of Flake’s potential primary opponents, Arizona State Treasurer Jeff DeWit, flew with Trump Tuesday from Yuma to Phoenix aboard Air Force One.
Trump, who met with border patrol officers earlier in the day, again promised to build a wall along the southern border—but conceded to officers’ calls for it to be transparent. And he laid out a clear marker that funding for it be included in any measure to fund the government in the coming fiscal year—a sticking point for lawmakers on Capitol Hill as Republicans are likely to need to win over Democratic votes to keep the government open.
Trump, who has been considering a pardon for Arpaio, teased that one would soon be forthcoming for his criminal contempt of court conviction stemming from a racial profiling case. “I won’t do it tonight, because I don’t want to cause any controversy,” Trump said, after first polling the crowd how they felt about the disgraced law enforcement official, “but Sheriff Joe can feel good.”
Less than a week into his Administration’s efforts to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement, Trump signaled his pessimism on the talks with Canada and Mexico. "I think we'll probably end up terminating NAFTA at some point,” he said.
But Trump reserved his toughest—and longest—criticism for the media, devoting roughly 30 minutes to attacking the press, whom he accused of being disloyal. “I really think they don’t like our country,” he said, “I really believe it.”
“The only people giving a platform to these hate groups is the media itself and the fake news,” the president added.
Trump blasted the “failing” New York Times, accused the Washington Post of being a lobbying front for owner Jeff Bezos’ Amazon, and mocked ABC News anchor George Stephanopolous’ height. Trump lamented CNN’s decision to fire pro-Trump contributor Jeffrey Lord after he tweeted “Sieg Heil!” in response to a critic.
“They fired poor Jeffrey,” Trump said.
It was an entirely superfluous defense, as presidents don't typically take the time to defend the cable news pundits who defend them, much less ones who make such obvious mistakes. But Trump showed, as he did in the rest of his remarkable rally, that no slight was too small to ignore.