Trump spoke for over an hour Tuesday, hitting the media members of both parties
Aides had said he would not speak about Joe Arpaio
When President Donald Trump’s aides said he wouldn’t discuss a pardon of controversial Sheriff Joe Arpaio, he did it anyway. When they warned him against lashing Arizona’s Republican senators by name, he made snide allusions to them instead. And when they insisted his statements about white supremacist violence required a re-do, he declared he was right the first time.
For all of Trump’s bluster at Tuesday evening’s campaign rally – against the media, Democrats, and some Republicans – a rebuke of his own staff lay just beneath the surface, the latest indication that efforts to rein him in instead cause him to act out.
His comments Tuesday, which largely veered off script for more than an hour, stood in stark contrast to his measured address to veterans on Wednesday, when he sounded on message and called for unity.
With new chief of staff John Kelly installed and his most quarrelsome aide removed, Trump now operates in a West Wing where, at least officially, order is prioritized over the dysfunction that has long roiled the President’s inner circle.
But Tuesday evening’s raucous campaign rally was another reminder that strict order doesn’t always make for an orderly President. If White House officials and informal advisers heard a message in the 77-minute stemwinder, it was this: Trump is in charge, and in control of his own message.
“The words were perfect,” Trump claimed of his first statement about rallies in Charlottesville, Virginia, which pointed to hate and anger on “many sides” and drew widespread criticism, two key words he omitted Tuesday when he reread parts of his original statement.
Trump’s closest aides told him he hadn’t gone far enough in condemning the white supremacists who were in the crowds. Many were privately taken aback at the equivocal remarks, though most have lost the ability to be shocked by Trump’s behavior.
His core team, including Kelly and chief economist Gary Cohn, convinced him to emerge two days later in the White House Diplomatic Room to declare, however rigidly, that neo-nazis and the KKK were “repugnant.”
But when those words failed to draw glowing reviews from commentators, Trump fumed. He reemerged in the lobby of Trump Tower the next day to assert there had been “very fine people” among the white supremacists in Virginia. And he all but declared his conciliatory statement a day earlier had been someone else’s idea.
On Tuesday, Trump promised he would “take just a second” to re-litigate how the events unfolded. He proceeded to lambast the media response to his remarks for almost 25 minutes, finding tangents in every direction that revealed an angry, defensive President.
People close to Trump say he’s long bristled at implications he isn’t his own man, that he’s beholden to someone else’s advice, or that he’s not responsible for his own successes. Magazine covers that have declared various aides – including former chief strategist Steve Bannon and his son-in-law Jared Kushner – as the men behind the Trump curtain have made the President steam.
Last week, his annoyance at Bannon was exacerbated by a book, “Devil’s Bargain,” upon which he shared a cover with his now-former aide, who is described inside as key to Trump’s success. Bannon was fired Friday.
Bannon’s departure leaves a void in the West Wing for the type of populism rooted in the culture wars and economic resentment that helped get Trump elected. The President made clear Tuesday, however, that he doesn’t require an aide to drive that message. He’ll do it himself, at his rallies and on Twitter – a medium he defended, even as he’s acknowledged that some of his advisers have worked to curtail its use.
“If I didn’t have social media, I wouldn’t be able to get the word out,” he said. “I probably wouldn’t be standing here, right? I probably wouldn’t be standing here right now.”
Few on Trump’s team expect the President to behave in ways that past presidents have. Most have given up trying to temper his voice, either in person or over Twitter.
Kelly entered his post this summer hoping to instill a regimented sense of hierarchy and order on the West Wing – but conceded that his aim was not to change the President himself.
But there are still those who offer advice on muting Trump’s famously combative persona. Some of that advice was evident when he delivered a Teleprompter speech Monday about Afghanistan.
Twenty four hours later, Trump had moved on.
“They all said, Mr. President, your speech was so good last night, please, please, Mr. President don’t mention any names,” Trump said Tuesday after deriding the Senate’s failure to pass a measure repealing the Affordable Care Act.
And he didn’t mention names. But it was clear to the Arizona crowd that their own senators were in his targets. Sen. John McCain returned to Washington after a cancer diagnosis to cast the decisive vote against the repeal bill.
“One vote away,” Trump bellowed in anger, before adding a more subdued: “I will not mention any names. Very presidential, isn’t it? Very presidential.”
This state’s other GOP senator, Jeff Flake, was reduced to an afterthought – “Nobody knows who the hell he is,” he sniffed. But the next morning he made his feelings clear: “Phoenix crowd last night was amazing - a packed house,” he wrote on Twitter. “I love the Great State of Arizona. Not a fan of Jeff Flake, weak on crime & border!”
Trump’s aides have long fretted over his contentious relations with members of his own party on Capitol Hill. His descriptions of Republican lawmakers on Tuesday suffered compared to his praise of Kim Jong Un,
But privately, some concede that his needling of Republican lawmakers could hardly worsen the prospects of an agenda that’s already mostly stalled.
Still, as Trump prepared to speak in Phoenix on Tuesday, aides traveling with him encouraged him to lay off McCain and Flake, whose votes – like all Republicans – will be essential toward passing legislation in a Senate where the GOP holds only a slim majority.
Already on Tuesday Trump had been forced by his staff to alter his plans. A scheduled visit to the US-Mexico border was scrapped for security reasons, leaving Trump confined to the airport tarmac, where he viewed Customs and Border Patrol equipment instead.
After nearly four hours aboard Air Force One with Trump, press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders also felt confident enough to tell reporters that Trump wouldn’t discuss a potential pardon for Arpaio, a move that was rumored after Trump floated the possibility last week.
Six hours later, Trump was onstage flouting his spokeswoman’s words.
“So was Sheriff Joe convicted for doing his job?” he asked. “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.”
Even as Trump was defying his team’s advice and unloading his anger, he still reserved praise for Kelly, who traveled with him to Arizona.
Despite the changes and dismissals that Kelly has brought to the West Wing, Trump has remained open to the changes, remaining hopeful that the new order will help advance his agenda.
But on Tuesday, Kelly didn’t appear ready to take any credit for the President on stage.
“John, where’s John? Where is he? Where’s General Kelly?” Trump asked, looking toward the wings. “Get him out here. He’s great. He’s doing a great job.”
Kelly didn’t appear.