Trump's speech aligned himself tightly with his loyal base
Trump has allies in Arizona, a state he won in 2016
But the state's two Republican senators have been outspoken critics
President Donald Trump waded deep into the culture war Tuesday over Confederate statues – while revising the very recent history of his own comments.
In what amounted to a 77-minute presidential therapy session in front of thousands of supporters, Trump pulled out copies of three of his own speeches and rehashed what he’d said about white supremacists’ gathering around a Robert E. Lee statue in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Trump omitted that in his first response, he’d said “many sides” were responsible for the violence there, a comment that drew bipartisan rebuke for equating neo-Nazis with those protesting against them.
“I hit ‘em with neo-Nazi, I hit ‘em with everything. KKK? We have KKK. I got ‘em all,” Trump said.
Then, he lambasted the “weak, weak people” allowing Confederate statues to be removed.
“They’re trying to take away our culture. They’re trying to take away our history,” Trump said.
It was just part of a night in which Trump aligned himself tightly with his loyal base – ignoring the wishes of GOP leaders and the predictions of his own White House while attacking Arizona’s two Republican senators, hinting at the pardon of a controversial former Arizona sheriff and signaling that a federal government shutdown could loom in the weeks ahead, all while leading chants of “build the wall.”
“If we have to close down our government, we’re building that wall,” Trump promised his followers.
In a state bordering Mexico, Trump predicted that the North American Free Trade Agreement would ultimately be dissolved – a move that would shake up supply chains and alter products’ availability and prices across the continent – even though his administration is trying to renegotiate the deal with Canada and Mexico.
“I think we’ll probably end up terminating NAFTA at some point,” Trump said.
Trump also pleaded with supporters to urge senators to scrap the rule requiring 60 votes for a legislative measure to move forward.
That rule did not encumber the GOP’s failed effort to repeal and replace Obamacare – but, Trump said, it blocks larger health care changes, such as allowing insurance to be sold across state lines, and could imperil the rest of his legislative agenda.
“If we don’t, the Republicans will never get anything passed. You’re wasting your time,” Trump said. “We have to get rid of the filibuster rule. Right now, we need 60 votes. We have 52 Republicans. That means that eight Democrats are controlling all of this legislation.”
In a reference to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, the Kentucky Republican who has vehemently opposed any changes to the filibuster rule for legislation, Trump said that “we have to speak to Mitch and we have to speak to everyone.”
Trump defied national Republicans’ wishes and criticized Arizona’s two Republican senators, John McCain and Jeff Flake.
Trump said he “will not mention any names,” but said repeatedly that Republicans were “one vote” short on health care. McCain was one of the three GOP senators to vote against a Republican bill to overhaul parts of Obamacare.
Then, attacking Flake, Trump said: “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.”
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.
Notably not part of the program: Kelli Ward, the former state senator who Trump praised on Twitter for running against Flake last week. Ward was expected to be in the crowd but was not speaking and was not a VIP attendee. Still, in a show of support perhaps left over from Ward drawing 39% in a primary against McCain last year, hundreds – likely thousands – of people standing in line outside the event carried Ward signs or wore Ward stickers.
In a move sure to spark an intense backlash from immigration advocates, Trump hinted Tuesday he could pardon Joe Arpaio, the controversial former Maricopa County sheriff who was long accused of racially discriminatory practices, 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?” Trump asked, publicly testing the response to a pardon. “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.”
The remark was a surprise: 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.
Trump’s arrival at the Phoenix Convention Center was be greeted by mass protests from progressive and anti-bigotry groups.
Democrats in Arizona, including Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton, had been lambasting Trump for even visiting the state – particularly for a campaign rally.
First stop: Yuma
Trump’s day in Arizona started near the border, where he viewed equipment used by US Customs and Border Protection agents to track illegal crossings.
Trump’s aides planned for him to go to the US-Mexico border as part of his visit to Yuma on Tuesday, but were forced to scrap that plan 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, Trump did not leave the grounds of the Marine base where he landed. The person did not specify the nature of the threat.
The White House referred a request for comment 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 fence 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.
This story has been updated.
CNN’s Kevin Liptak and Sara Murray contributed to this report.