The Memo: Seven takeaways from Trump’s Arizona speech

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President Trump traveled to Arizona Tuesday for a campaign-style rally that drew a near-capacity crowd to the Phoenix Convention Center and brought protesters onto the streets outside.

The occasion was sharply different from Trump’s speech the previous evening announcing that the United States would not be withdrawing from Afghanistan anytime soon.

What were the major takeaways?

Trump will be Trump

This was the president back to his usual self: unscripted, unrestrained and unfiltered.

The reaction in the arena was ecstatic. Among pundits, it was not. CNN anchor Don Lemon called the address “unhinged” and “embarrassing” within seconds of its conclusion.

Trump attacked the media at length for their coverage of his reaction to the fatal violence in Charlottesville, Va., earlier this month.

His speech at other times resembled a “greatest hits” package from his presidential campaign. He pledged to boost the economy; crack down on illegal immigration, in part by building a southern border wall; and drain the Washington swamp. He also said that his administration would “end up probably terminating NAFTA.”

The tone in which his remarks were delivered was as notable as the substance. This was clearly a president with a lot of frustration to get off his chest. His supporters will empathize. His critics will deride his volatility.

For all the rhetorical fireworks, however, it was tough to see how Trump changed anyone’s opinion of him — for better or for worse.

He brought Charlottesville back

The furor over Charlottesville had begun to subside this week as criticism of Trump from high-profile Republicans faded from the headlines and his speech about Afghanistan took up much of the media oxygen.

That being so, the president’s decision to relitigate the controversy will strike even many Republicans as peculiar.

The president produced a sheet of paper and re-read several of his comments about the clashes between white supremacists and protesters that left 32-year-old Heather Heyer dead. Heyer was hit by a car allegedly driven by a man who harbored far-right views.

Trump’s argument was that he had been misrepresented by the media and that he had in fact condemned the far-right clearly.

But the strongest criticism of Trump had focused upon his initial assertion that there had been violence “on many sides” and his later insistence that there were “very fine people on both sides.” He did not mention either of those comments in Phoenix.

Media critic Howard Kurtz noted on Fox News that Trump had likely given the story new life “for 48 hours at least.”

No names — but clear jabs at McCain and Flake

Much of the pre-speech drama concerned what Trump might say about the state’s two Republican senators, John McCain and Jeff Flake.

Both men are among Trump’s toughest GOP critics and neither attended his address. McCain is undergoing treatment for a brain tumor that was discovered in mid-July.

Trump avoided mentioning either man by name, but his message was clear.

He repeatedly mentioned that Senate legislation aimed at hollowing out the Affordable Care Act, also known as ObamaCare, had failed by one vote. It was clear that he was placing the blame on McCain, who sank the legislation with a dramatic downturn of a thumb on the Senate floor late last month.

“One vote away! I will not mention any names. Very presidential, isn’t it?” Trump asked.

He added, “Nobody wants me to talk about your other senator” — Flake — “who is weak on border [security], weak on crime.”

Trump had previously tweeted praise for Kelli Ward, a Republican who is challenging Flake from the right in the GOP Senate primary next year.

His attacks came amid worsening relations with Republicans on Capitol Hill.

Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) called Trump’s “stability” and “competence” into question late last week.

Shortly before Trump took to the stage in Phoenix, The New York Times published a story on tensions between the president and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).

McConnell, the newspaper reported, had expressed doubts that Trump “will be able to salvage his administration.”

A shutdown threat on the wall?

One of the most startling of Trump’s claims came in a single sentence about the border wall. “Believe me, if we have to close down our government, we’re building that wall,” he said.

Andrea Mitchell of NBC News tweeted “debt ceiling threat?” Others interpreted it as an attempt to pressure reluctant lawmakers to provide funding for the wall if a government shutdown is to be averted before the Sept. 30 deadline.

The remark will resonate on Capitol Hill and beyond. Business network CNBC reported that the price of two “safe havens” for investors — gold and the Japanese yen — edged higher after Trump’s comment.

Pardon coming for ‘Sheriff Joe’?

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders had told reporters on board Air Force One earlier in the day that there would be “no discussion” of a preemptive pardon for Joe Arpaio, the controversial former sheriff of Maricopa County, Ariz.

That’s not how things turned out.

Arpaio, praised by supporters for his hard-line stance on illegal immigration and reviled as an anti-Latino bigot by detractors, was recently convicted of criminal contempt of court.

Trump did not issue a pardon — but his sympathies were obvious.

“Was Sheriff Joe convicted for doing his job?” he asked, before going on to promise that “he’s going to be just fine, okay?”

Apparently alluding to a pardon, Trump added, “I won’t do it tonight because I don’t want to cause any controversy. But Sheriff Joe should feel good.”

Busy night for fact-checkers

The president’s rhetoric stretched reality on several occasions.

He suggested that CNN was turning its cameras off during his harangue of the media. The network did not do so.

PolitiFact judged his assertion that “wages haven’t gone up in a long time” to be false, stating that they have been rising for “the past three to five years depending on the measurement you use.”

Trump’s claim that Republicans had been only one vote away from repealing ObamaCare was also debatable. Even if the legislation in question had passed the Senate, fraught negotiations with the House would likely have followed, with no guarantee of ultimate repeal.

Of course, fact-checkers’ verdicts can themselves be controversial. The president said that gross domestic product growth in the second quarter of this year “surged” to 2.6 percent. implicitly pushed back on that, noting that growth has been higher than 2.6 percent during 8 of the past 18 quarters.

But the 2.6 percent figure does represent a near-doubling of the 1.4 percent GDP growth achieved in the first quarter of this year.


Plenty for the base to applaud

Trump’s detractors underestimate at their peril the strength of his connection to his supporters.

Even while the president has seen his approval ratings slip to historic lows, his base remains resilient.

His constituency found plenty to cheer on Tuesday evening.

Trump once again sounded themes of emphatic support for law enforcement, reverence for traditional culture and an ardor for old-school patriotism. Those calls resonate with a large swathe of the population even as they are viewed skeptically by many upscale urbanites.

Conservative media voices expressed enthusiasm for the speech.

“Classic @realDonaldTrump tonight–in your face and unabashedly pro-American,” radio talk show host Laura Ingraham tweeted. “This is absolutely RIVETING and HILARIOUS.”


The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.

Tags Bob Corker Donald Trump Jeff Flake John McCain Mitch McConnell
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