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Trump Defends Charlottesville Comments At Phoenix Rally


The 2020 presidential elections are more than three years away, but President Trump was in campaign mode last night.


He sure was, in a big way. The president was in Arizona, where he held a campaign rally in front of thousands of supporters at the Phoenix Convention Center. Inside the arena, the president brought up some familiar topics like the border wall, the controversy over Confederate statues and, yes, the media.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Truly dishonest people in the media and the fake media - they make up stories. They have no sources, in many cases. They say, a source says - there is no such thing. But they don't report the facts.

CHANG: Now, outside, the night ended with gas, pepper spray and arrests. To talk more about how this entire evening unfolded, we are joined on the line now by NPR's Geoff Bennett, who was inside the convention center where the president spoke. And we also have NPR's Kirk Siegler, who was outside where the protesters gathered.

Good morning to both of you.


KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: Good morning, Ailsa.

CHANG: Geoff, let's start with you. What did it feel like to be inside the rally with this huge crowd supporting the president?

BENNETT: Well, you know, Ailsa, President Trump visited Arizona seven times during the campaign. And the scene inside the convention center last night looked exactly like one of those campaign stops. The room was at about half capacity the entire night. And the people who showed up I think, by and large, fit the Trump demographic. They were mostly older, mostly white. And judging by what lines garnered the most applause, I'd say they were certainly hardcore conservatives.

CHANG: Now, I know the president spent quite a bit of time last night revisiting the reaction to his remarks on Charlottesville. How did he defend himself?

BENNETT: He defended himself by trying to shift blame to the media, even though the comments - the controversial, equivocal comments about the racial violence in Charlottesville - were all his own, delivered directly to the country, first in that public statement and then later in that Trump Tower press conference.

And so the president spent about 15 minutes going through each of his three public statements about Charlottesville. But he left out the part where he initially said that, you know, many sides were to blame for the violence. And he also excluded from his self-defense last night his comment that there were what he called fine people who marched alongside the white supremacists in Charlottesville.

So, you know, the unscripted part of his speech last night was largely an airing of grievances directed entirely at his base. It was not at all a sweeping appeal to the country, which, you know, you'll remember, a day earlier, he sought to persuade the country about recommitting troops and resources to a foreign war - the war in Afghanistan. He took an entirely different tone with that speech last night at that rally.

CHANG: Well, speaking of tone, I just want to reiterate, this was billed as a campaign rally. And perhaps Trump's biggest campaign promise was to build a wall between the U.S. and Mexico, and that Mexico would pay for that wall. But last night, the president pushed a different way to fund that wall, didn't he? What's his proposal now?

BENNETT: Well, he suggested, if he doesn't get the money he wants for his border wall, he could take steps to stall the budget negotiations on Capitol Hill and shut down the government. The issue is, federal government funding runs dry at the end of September. Neither party wants a government shutdown. It's not good politics. It certainly isn't good for the economy in the short term. But the president said last night, you know, one way or another, we're going to get that wall.

CHANG: ...Even if it means threatening a government shutdown.

BENNETT: That's what he says.

CHANG: Also, being in Arizona gave the president a chance to get a dig in against the two Republican senators there - Jeff Flake and John McCain - who have both been quite critical of Trump. How did the president use last night to hit back at them?

BENNETT: Well, he didn't mention them by name. But he didn't really have to because he kept referring to the collapse of the Senate health care bill and expressing disbelief that they were just one vote away, as he put it. And the crowd immediately knew who he was talking about - that he was talking about John McCain. And so the crowd erupted into chants of, McCain must go. And then he also dissed Jeff Flake, albeit obliquely. He said he was weak on borders and weak on crime. And then he said, nobody knows who he is - speaking about Jeff Flake.

But the other thing that's interesting is that he also signaled that he's prepared to pardon the former Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio who, as you know, was convicted in that case that touched on racial profiling, mostly of Latinos. So last night, the president said he wasn't going to make a pardon there on that stage, but he predicted that Arpaio would, in his words, be just fine.

CHANG: Now, it wasn't all Trump fans out there last night, as we've been hearing. The president was actually interrupted by at least one man inside the convention center.


TRUMP: How did he get in here? He's supposed to be with the few people outside.

CHANG: OK, we're going to turn now to you, Kirk. You were outside covering the protests. Were there just a few people, as the president put it?

SIEGLER: No, Ailsa, more like thousands, actually, which was expected. And people were not deterred by the 105-degree heat, either.

CHANG: Wow. What was it like? What was the scene outside?

SIEGLER: Well, this was definitely one of the larger counterprotests I think we've seen outside of a Trump rally. Things were, for the most part, peaceful. But by the end, police started using tear gas to disperse the crowd as supporters of Trump were coming out of the convention center. And there were some skirmishes.

According to police, some protesters had started throwing bottles and rocks, so they began to fire off tear gas. And at one point, it was pretty hard to breathe out there. And police were trying to push protesters like Santiana Martinez away from the convention center. Now, I caught up with her briefly on the street as she was running away from the tear gas. And she said she had been worried about the possibility of violence. Let's hear a little of that now.


SANTIANA MARTINEZ: I knew what could happen, and I knew the consequences. But I still came out here because I really want people to know this is not OK, and Trump needs to be stopped.

SIEGLER: And also, I saw a few minor scuffles between pro- and anti-Trump supporters after the rally - a lot of shouting matches. But it felt like things could've gotten considerably worse on the streets last night had Trump actually pardoned Joe Arpaio on the stage.

CHANG: But you didn't see these bottles or rocks being thrown that were reported by police.

SIEGLER: Not from my vantage point, no. But - and this was pretty brief. Things had actually dispersed, mostly, by 10:30 last night. You know, the police were very worried that things could get out of hand, especially after Charlottesville. There was a large police presence out there. The streets were barricaded. Huge dump trucks were acting as roadblocks, presumably to prevent a vehicle attack. But, you know, in the end, things were relatively calm, and there were just a few arrests.

CHANG: That's NPR's Kirk Siegler and Goeff Bennett. Thank you very much, both of you.

SIEGLER: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Geoff Bennett is a White House reporter for NPR. He previously covered Capitol Hill and national politics for NY1 News in New York City and more than a dozen other Time Warner-owned cable news stations across the country. Prior to that role, he was an editor with NPR's Weekend Edition. Geoff regularly guest hosts C-SPAN's Washington Journal — a live, three-hour news and public affairs program. He began his journalism career at ABC News in New York after graduating from Morehouse College.
As a correspondent on NPR's national desk, Kirk Siegler covers rural life, culture and politics from his base in Boise, Idaho.