President Donald Trump roared, blamed, boasted, omitted and obfuscated Tuesday night at a campaign rally in Phoenix, but there was one thing he decided against doing: selling his stalled legislative agenda.
A night after delivering a measured and somewhat-detailed prime-time address that laid out his new counterterrorism-focused Afghanistan strategy, Trump’s criticism of the news media, his increasingly visible insecurities and his fixation on his political base took over just minutes into his remarks in the Valley of the Sun.
Trump had picked up some much-needed momentum the previous night by sticking to a script with his Afghanistan address, but he let it slip away Tuesday as he began to attack the media, criticize Republican senators and take on other sensitive issues.
The president began his appearance at the rally much as he had spent the previous evening: reading prepared remarks from a teleprompter that called for national unity after the Charlottesville violence, which claimed three lives, including a 32-year-old woman killed by a Nazi sympathizer in a car attack that Trump’s own attorney general has dubbed domestic terrorism.
“In Arizona, the president had an opportunity to build on his responsible, well-received speech on Afghanistan — instead, he delivered an unfocused, campaign-style harangue that will do nothing to help him accomplish things for the American people,” said Michael Steel, who was a senior adviser to former Speaker John A. Boehner and to Jeb Bush’s 2016 presidential campaign.
“One step forward, one step back simply isn’t good enough to get results,” Steel said. “We need a sustained, focused and disciplined effort, and — so far — the President seems incapable of delivering it.”
At about nine minutes into Tuesday night’s remarks, something changed. The on-message president reverted to the on-the-attack candidate who rode his sharp tongue and non-politically correct rhetoric all the way to the White House.
In fact, the exact moment the transformation occurred was apparent.
“And tonight, this entire arena stands united in forceful condemnation of the thugs who perpetrate hatred and violence,” Trump said to applause.
But, just then, his eyes locked on the the back of the Phoenix Convention Center and he began to point in that direction. What had started out as a very presidential event was about to take a major turn.
‘The very dishonest media …’
“But the very dishonest media, those people right up there with all the cameras,” Trump said to loud boos from the crowd. “So the — and I mean 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.”
Eventually, the president would return to the teleprompter and the remarks he and his staff had prepared, which included lines about a coming Republican tax overhaul, his proposed U.S.-Mexico border wall, and other agenda items. But those were weaved into remarks that often jumped wildly from topic to topic, that seem to have Trump focused on other matters.
At one point, Trump somehow found his way to a favorite target during his 2016 presidential run: the so-called elites who reside on the East and West coasts — and his palatial Manhattan apartment, which, ironically, is nestled in the midst of an “elitist” stronghold: New York City.
“I always hear about the elite. You know, the elite,” the president said as supporters positioned on risers behind him smiled widely. “They’re elite? I went to better schools than they did. I was a better student than they were.”
“I live in a bigger, more beautiful apartment,” a grinning Trump said. “And I live in the White House, too, which is really great.”
The Phoenix speech provided the president with an opportunity to breathe some life into his stalled legislative agenda. For the second consecutive night, his remarks were carried live on cable news networks and social media was buzzing about his every word.
His opening remarks spanned nearly 900 words. But then he pulled from his jacket pocket a paper copy of his initial remarks about the Charlottesville violence, which he delivered on Aug. 12.
After he began reading and re-litigating the words printed on the papers he placed on the blue podium, Trump devoted his next nearly 3,000 words to a harsh denunciation of specific media outlets, an aggressive defense — which sometimes challenged facts — of his response to Charlottesville, the attack on the country’s “elites” and even several plugs for Fox News, including ones for its morning show “Fox and Friends” and for conservative host Sean Hannity.
“How good is Hannity?” the president asked to applause. “And he's a great guy, and he’s an honest guy. And ‘Fox and Friends’ in the morning is the best show — and it’s the absolute, most honest show, and it’s the show I watch.”
After Trump’s extended, off-script tirade was over, he devoted just over 300 spoken words to a section of his prepared remarks on a coming Republican push to craft and pass a tax overhaul bill. In it, he promised Americans a “big, beautiful tax cut.”
Trump could have used the prime-time stage to explain why his idea to spend up to $1 trillion revamping the country’s roads, bridges, airports and other infrastructure is necessary. Instead, the president who touts himself as “a builder” devoted just over 100 spoken words about his desire for “gleaming new roads, bridges, highways, railways, waterways, all across our beautiful land.”
Trump uttered the term “health care” just twice, even as he spent time during his working vacation to call for Senate Republicans to vote again on a health care overhaul bill. He devoted over 400 spoken words Tuesday night to health care, but a large portion of that came as part of a call for Senate GOP leaders to alter the chamber’s rules so legislation could pass with 51 votes.
(At no point, however, did the president explain how that would help pass the GOP health care bill, which died under a 51-vote rule after falling a vote short.)
He did, however, feel the need to devote 77 words to sending more mixed signals about a possible strike on North Korea over its refusal to give up its nuclear arms and long-range missiles.
“And you see what’s going on in North Korea. All of a sudden, I don’t know — who knows. But I can tell you, what I said, that’s not strong enough,” Trump said, referring to his pledge to order “fire and fury” on the isolated nation if it doesn’t change its behavior. “Some people said it’s too strong, it’s not strong enough.”
“But Kim Jong Un, I respect the fact that I believe he is starting to respect us. I respect that fact very much. Respect that fact,” the commander in chief said. “And maybe — probably not — but maybe something positive can come about.”