Updated at 9:40 a.m. | An angry and defiant President Donald Trump used a Tuesday campaign rally to threaten a government shutdown, slam two Republican senators in their home state, and pour rhetorical gasoline on racial tensions he has twice stoked since the deadly Charlottesville, Virginia, white supremacist protests.
Trump stuck to his staff’s script at the start of a rally in Phoenix, reading prepared remarks from a teleprompter just as he did during a stoic speech the night before to announce his Afghanistan policy. But it didn’t last, with the president appearing to put even more distance between himself and mainstream Republicans and even some members of his own Cabinet.
A clearly agitated Trump used a large chunk of his remarks to lambaste the news media for what he dubbed “dishonest” coverage of his various statements about the Charlottesville violence that was spawned by events organized there by white supremacist groups. But he had plenty of vitriol left for lawmakers, including members of his own party.
Trump threatened to force a federal government shutdown unless a spending bill that must be signed into law by the final minute of Sept. 30 includes monies for his desired U.S.-Mexico border wall.
“Build that wall,” Trump told supporters in a convention center that reporters there tweeted was not full — despite the president’s repeated references to the “incredible” crowd size.
“Now the obstructionist Democrats would like us not to do it,” he said of the proposed border barrier. “But, believe me, if we have to close down our government, we’re building that wall.”
Before he delivered that threat, the friendly crowd chanted, “Build the wall!” as Trump left his blue podium with the official seal of the Office of the President, and clapped with the rhythm of the chant.
Trump appears to have support in high places among Republicans for including border wall funding in an anticipated stopgap spending measure, including from House Speaker Paul D. Ryan. But Democrats are staunchly opposed.
McCain defied him by casting the third and decisive Republican vote that killed a health care “skinny” repeal bill. Flake has penned a book that is harshly critical of Trump — and the president has expressed support for his 2018 primary challenger.
Though he never mentioned their names, Trump criticized both senators Tuesday night. He alluded to McCain by loudly asserting that Republicans fell “one vote” shy of passing the health care bill. And he repeated his past views that Flake, the state’s junior senator, is “weak” on issues such as crime and border security, adding that “nobody knows who the hell he is.”
The next morning, Trump tweeted that the crowd was “not a fan” of Flake. He also reiterated his stances on the senator’s views on border security and crime.
Phoenix crowd last night was amazing – a packed house. I love the Great State of Arizona. Not a fan of Jeff Flake, weak on crime & border!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 23, 2017
He also said it is time to “talk to Mitch,” as in McConnell, the Senate majority leader, about changing the chamber’s rules to allow for passing legislation with 51 votes. He said eight Democrats currently control the chamber.
Trump left out that the GOP health care bill died when it failed to reach that very simple majority threshold. “If they don’t do that, then they’re just wasting time,” he said of GOP leaders. McConnell and his caucus are staunchly opposed to such a rule change — but the president keeps pushing for it anyway, publicly exposing yet another fissure between him and members of his own party.
But the president, energized by his lengthy remarks about his Charlottesville response directed at the media, wasn’t quite done there.
Trump threatened to kill the North American Free Trade Agreement just as his administration begins trying to renegotiate the pact with Canadian and Mexican leaders.
“I think we’ll probably end up terminating NAFTA at some point,” Trump said, pouring cold water on the notion that his own negotiators can strike a revised deal with America’s two neighbors.
“Personally, I don’t think we can make a deal,” he said, adding that nixing NAFTA might be the only way to get a better deal for the United States.
Still on defense
But it was the president’s defense of his handling of the Charlottesville violence — which included numerous rants and sharp words for the news media — that got him so animated.
He even pulled from his coat pocket a copy of the statement he read on Aug. 12, the day of the violence, for the second time in a week, and went through it line by line and word by word — almost.
Notably, he left out his declaration from that afternoon that individuals “on many sides” were to blame for the unrest that left 32-year-old counter-protester Heather Heyer dead.
And he mocked the counter-protesters and again painted them as violent.
You know, they show up in the helmets and the black masks, and they’ve got clubs and they’ve got everything – Antifa!” Trump said at one point, referring to a far-left group that was among the counter-Nazi protesters and has been linked to violence in the past.
Republican lawmakers have publicly said Trump should have immediately condemned the neo-Nazi and white supremacist groups who organized the rally — though many opted against referencing the president by name after he appeared to give those very groups cover.
“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 said Tuesday night. “I strongly condemn neo-Nazis, white supremacists and the KKK.”
But critics lit up Twitter even as he read from the initial statement, laying into the controversial president for omitting his “many sides” remark from his recollection.
At several points, he pointed to journalists in the back of the convention center, calling them “dishonest” and alleging that they did not accurately report his statements on Charlottesville.
Dan Pfeiffer, a former senior Obama White House official, tweeted that the president was unjustly playing victim.
Only Trump can see terrible violence in Charlottesville caused by Nazis marching in the street and then decide he is the true victim
— Dan Pfeiffer (@danpfeiffer) August 23, 2017
Meantime, Trump’s slightly masked remarks about Flake and McCain represented just one of the times he openly defied his own senior aides during Tuesday’s address.
White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters on Air Force One earlier in the day that there would be “no discussion … at any point” of former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, for whom Trump was rumored to be mulling a pardon. She also said “no action will be taken on that front at any point today.”
But the president chose to very publicly contradict his new press secretary: “He should’ve had a jury,” Trump said of Arpaio, who was convicted last month of ignoring a judge’s order in a racial profiling case. “But I’ll make a prediction: I think he’s going to be just fine, OK? … I won’t do it tonight because I don’t want to cause any controversy.”
Democrats weigh in
Democratic lawmakers took to Twitter early and often during what was perhaps Trump’s most remarkable campaign-style rally since taking office.
Sen. Brian Schatz of Hawaii wrote that the president sounded “like a guy at a bar.”
He sounds like a guy at a bar.
Rep. Tim Ryan of Ohio criticized Trump for, in his view, spending “more time attacking our free press than he does the white supremacists who committed an act of domestic terror.”
The President spends more time attacking our free press than he does the white supremacists who committed an act of domestic terror.
And Rep. Rick Larsen of Washington employed some snark: “Tonight is the night DJT became presidential … I wondered how ridiculous it was to write that. Now I know”
Tonight is the night DJT became presidential…I wondered how ridiculous it was to write that. Now I know
GOP members were largely silent, though Arizona Rep. Andy Biggs, who attended the rally and was called onstage by Trump, did throw his support behind the president’s call to change Senate rules. “This needs to be done immediately,” he wrote. “No delay.”
Lindsey McPherson contributed to this report.