PHOENIX — President Donald Trump on Tuesday vigorously defended his responses to the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, slamming the “damn dishonest” media at a campaign rally while omitting that he blamed the clashes on “many sides” — a remark that garnered him widespread bipartisan criticism.
“What happened in Charlottesville strikes at the core of America. And tonight, this entire arena stands united against the thugs who perpetrate hatred and violence,” Trump told the crowd at the Phoenix Convention Center, adding, “I strongly condemn neo-Nazis, white supremacists and the KKK.”
Trump spent roughly 15 minutes near the top of his remarks going through each of the three public statements he made in response to the violence at the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville that left one counter-protester dead. In retelling his remarks, Trump omitted his reference to “many sides” in his response on the day of the violence and his reference to “both sides” last Tuesday, comments seen as equating neo-Nazis with counter-protesters.
“I hit ’em with neo-Nazi, I hit ’em with everything. KKK? We have KKK. I got ’em all,” Trump said in reference to calling out specifics groups in his statements.
Trump also hinted Tuesday he could pardon Joe Arpaio, the controversial former Maricopa County sheriff, amid reports the president is planning to pardon him for his conviction on criminal contempt charges.
“Do the people in this room like Sheriff Joe?” he said to cheers.
“So was Sheriff Joe convicted for doing his job? … You know what, I’ll make a prediction: I think he’s going to be just fine, OK? But I won’t do it tonight because I don’t want to cause any controversy. But Sheriff Joe should feel good.”
When asked on Air Force One earlier Tuesday about a would-be Arpaio pardon, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said no news would be made Tuesday.
“I can tell you that there will be no discussion of that today at any point and no action will be taken on that front at any time today,” Sanders said.
Less than 24 hours after delivering a primetime speech outlining his Afghanistan strategy, Trump was holding a campaign rally in Phoenix, with Vice President Mike Pence and Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson speaking.
In anticipation of Trump’s trip, the political world was buzzing about not just whether the president would set off controversy in Phoenix — but which specific hot-button clash he could wade into.
Could he endorse Kelli Ward or another Republican challenger to Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake, who recently wrote a book decrying Trump’s corrupting influence on the party?
Two Republicans who are openly considering primary campaigns against Flake next year were part of the pre-program at the rally. Jeff DeWit, the Arizona state treasurer, was the MC, tweeting photos of himself with Trump from earlier in the day. And Faith Graham, the 13-year-old daughter of Robert Graham, the former state GOP chairman, led the Pledge of Allegiance.
Trump mocked Arizona Republican Sens. Flake and John McCain, while theatrically avoiding saying their names.
“One vote away, I will not mention any names,” he said — a reference to McCain’s vote against Republicans’ health care bill.
Then, he moved on to Flake, saying: “Nobody wants me to talk about him. Nobody knows who the hell he is. And now, we haven’t mentioned any names, so now, everybody’s happy.”
Trump’s arrival at the Phoenix Convention Center was be greeted by mass protests from progressive and anti-bigotry groups.
Trump’s day in Arizona started near the border, where he viewed equipment used by U.S. Customs and Border Patrol agents to track illegal crossings.
Trump’s aides planned for him to visit the U.S.-Mexico border as part of his visit Tuesday to Yuma, but were forced to scrap the visit because of security concerns, according to a person familiar with the situation.
According to background provided by the White House on Monday evening, Trump was slated to visit the San Luis II commercial crossing, about 20 miles south of Yuma.
But when he stopped in Yuma on Tuesday, he did not leave the grounds of the Marine base where he landed. The person did not specify the nature of the threat.
Asked for comment, the White House referred to the Secret Service.
“The Secret Service does not comment on its protective operations,” said Cathy Milhoan, a Secret Service spokeswoman.
The administration has praised the Yuma border patrol sector for the miles of secure fencing, constructed over the past decade, which they say has curtailed the flow of undocumented immigrants crossing the border illegally.
Those commitments were made during previous administrations, however, and previous presidents have claimed credit. George W. Bush toured the border near Yuma during his second term, riding a dune buggy along the fencing and heralding funds he approved to build it.
The immigration issue has been a touchstone of Trump’s throughout his campaign and the early days of his administration, centered on his promise to construct a wall along the US-Mexico border.
The project has seen setbacks, including an acknowledgment that Mexico will not — at least for now — pay for the wall’s construction, as Trump has repeatedly promised. Instead, Congress has approved some funding for the measure, which Trump insists will be repaid.
On Tuesday, administration officials sought to underscore Trump’s tough-on-immigration stance, attributing a drop in border apprehensions to his actions and rhetoric over the first six months of his tenure.
Flake — who took on Trump in a new book, “Conscience of a Conservative” — wouldn’t respond Monday morning after an East Valley Chambers of Commerce breakfast to questions about Trump’s tweet last week that Flake is “a non-factor in the Senate” and “toxic!”
“I don’t worry about it at all,” Flake said.