Trump unloads in defense of his Charlottesville response at Phoenix rally

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President Trump on Tuesday night fiercely defended his response to violence in Charlottesville, Va., at his first public rally since his remarks ignited a national debate about whether he had emboldened racists.

Speaking at a campaign rally in Phoenix, Trump made passing remarks from a teleprompter about the need for unity and inclusion before veering off-script to attack the news media, Democrats and even Republicans in the Senate whom he accused of distorting his response and blocking his agenda.

The president mocked the protesters outside the building and taunted the “anti-fascist” protesters — known as “antifa” — that clashed with the white supremacists in Charlottesville, where three people died last Saturday.

“All week [the media] are talking about the massive crowds that are going to be outside. Where are they?” Trump asked. “It’s hot out. It is hot. I think it’s too warm. They show up in the helmets and black masks and they have clubs and everything. Antifa!”

At the 76-minute long rally, Trump threatened to shut down the government if his proposed border wall doesn’t get funding from Congress.

“If we have to close down our government, we’re building that wall,” he said.

Trump teased that he would soon pardon controversial former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who was convicted of ignoring court orders to end the racial profiling of Latinos.

In the run-up to the rally, Democrats warned that a pardon would further inflame racial tensions in the wake of Charlottesville. Trump signaled that a pardon would come, but that Tuesday night was not the proper venue for it.

“I will make a prediction — I think he’s going to be just fine,” Trump said. “But I won’t do it tonight because I don’t want to cause any controversy. Is that okay?”

And the president ripped Arizona’s sitting Republican senators — John McCain and Jeff Flake — although he did not mention them by name because he said GOP leaders asked him not to.

McCain helped sink the GOP’s ObamaCare repeal efforts.

“One vote, speak to your senator, please, speak to your senator,” Trump said.

Flake has been touring with his new book “Conscience of a Conservative,” which argues that Republicans need to reclaim the soul of the party from Trump. The president has tweeted his support for Flake’s GOP primary challenger in 2018, putting him at odds with Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and the Republican Senate campaign arm.

“Nobody wants me to talk about your other senator, who is weak on borders, weak on crime, so I won’t talk about him,” Trump said. “Nobody wants me to talk about him. Nobody knows who the hell he is. And now see, I haven’t mentioned any names. Very presidential.”

Nearly 20,000 people packed into the arena to hear the president speak.

Phoenix police and the FBI were on high alert ahead of the event, which marked Trump’s first public rally since the furious blowback to his response to Charlottesville.

There have been street protests in cities across the country in the week since, but reports on the ground from Phoenix indicated there were only a few minor scuffles outside the convention center.

At the end of the night, police in riot gear deployed smoke canisters and flash-bangs to disperse the crowd as protesters mixed with rallygoers streaming out of the complex.

Inside the arena, Trump’s allies — Vice President Pence, Housing and Urban Development secretary Ben Carson and Christian evangelist Franklin Graham — struck a conciliatory tone before Trump took the stage.

“Our differences are nothing compared to our shared humanity,” Carson said.

Trump opened with a similar tone, but quickly veered off script to spend the bulk of the rally unloading on the news media for its coverage of his response to Charlottesville.

Trump called for calm and unity on the day of the protests but was criticized for not directly calling out white supremacists or the Ku Klux Klan by name and for saying that there was violence “on many sides.”

The president directly denounced racist groups at a second press conference held 48 hours later, but soon after reaped a whirlwind for blaming “both sides” for the violence and saying there were some marching with the white nationalists that had good intentions.

Republicans quickly lined up to rebuke the president and business leaders fled his economic advisory councils.

On Tuesday night, Trump read through almost the entirety of his initial response, arguing that it was adequate.

He cast all of his troubles on the media’s “false” coverage, sparking chants of “CNN sucks!” from his supporters.

Trump attacked ABC’s George Stephanopolous as “Little George.” He railed against the “failing” New York Times and “pathetic” CNN and called The Washington Post a “lobbying tool for Amazon.”

“These were my exact words — ‘I love all the people of our country. We are going to make America great again. But we are going to make it a great for all of the people of the United States of America,’ ” Trump said. “And then they say, ‘Is he a racist?’ ”

“You know where my heart is,” Trump continued. “I’m really doing this to show you how damned dishonest these people are.”

Trump did not mention that he had also blamed “both sides” and “many sides” on two occasions, which is what provoked fury from his critics.

“What about the alt-left that came charging at the — as you say, the alt-right?” Trump asked at a Trump Tower press conference last week. “Do they have any semblance of guilt? What about the fact they came charging with clubs in their hands, swinging clubs? Do they have any problem? I think they do. As far as I am concerned, that was a horrible, horrible day.”

On Tuesday night, the president accused the media of obsessing over the white nationalists and of giving “a platform to hate groups” that they wouldn’t otherwise have.

“It is time to expose the crooked media deception and to challenge the media for their role in fomenting divisions,” Trump said. “And yes, by the way, they are trying to take away our history and our heritage.”

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