Donald Trump returned to a theme of unity during a speech in Nevada on Wednesday, one day after he departed from planned remarks emphasising togetherness – in the wake of the violence in Charlottesville – to blast his perceived adversaries in the media and beyond.
The speech to an American Legion conference marked Mr Trump’s latest effort to move past a turbulent stretch in which he has been widely chastised – and forsaken by corporate leaders – for his response to the racially-charged violence at the protest organised by white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia, which included a car being driven through a crowd of counter-protesters.
The fact that the President stayed on script during his address to the veterans’ group was a stark departure from a campaign-style rally the night before in Phoenix, Arizona, in which he undercut his initial plea for reconciliation by lashing out at journalists and elected officials.
“We are not defined by the colour of our skin, the figure on our paycheck or the party of our politics. We are defined by our shared humanity,” the President added. “We have no division too deep for us to heal and there is no enemy too strong for us to overcome.”
Mr Trump then, on stage, signed into law a bill that would cut the amount of time the Department of Veterans Affairs takes to decide veterans’ appeals of their disability payments. He described the bill as “a big one” as he readied his pen at a signing ceremony.
The previous night, Mr Trump was more combative than conciliatory. After saying at the outset of the speech that “When one part of America hurts, we all hurt”, Mr Trump veered into familiar campaign-style attacks on the “totally dishonest” media and assailed Arizona Republicans who have criticised him.
He accused reporters of distorted his remarks on Charlottesville, in which he first faulted violence on “many sides” before specifically condemning white supremacists, and then later again equating them with leftist counter-protestors, casting blame “on both sides”. The mixed signals sent out by Mr Trump in singling out white supremacists and then lumping them in with counter-protesters again was met with condemnation from both Democrats and Republicans, as well as business leaders and community representatives.
If the Phoenix rally evoked themes from Mr Trump’s campaign, so too did a visit earlier on Tuesday to a US Customs and Border Patrol outpost. With his promise of building a wall stalled as Congress has not yet allocated money, Mr Trump dangled shutting down the government as a way to shake loose the needed funds.
That particular threat brought rebukes from leading Democrats and the Speaker of the House, Republican Paul Ryan. Mr Ryan said that a wall was necessary but the government did not have to choose between border security and a government shutdown.
To add to the controversy, Mr Trump all but vowed to pardon the embattled former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio. An immigration hardliner who has drawn warm praise from Mr Trump, Arpaio has been convicted of criminal contempt for ignoring federal demands to stop profiling people based on their potential immigration status.
“Was Sheriff Joe convicted for doing his job? He should have had a jury. I’ll make a prediction. I think he’s going to be just fine”, Mr Trump said amid reverberating chants of “Pardon Joe!”
Reports on Wednesday suggested that the White House had drawn up the papers to pardon Arpaio.
Mr Trump also reserved some animus for Republican Senator Jeff Flake, who has become a vocal critic of the President. After castigating a senator “who’s weak on border, weak on crime” but declining to name him, praising his restraint as “very presidential”, Mr Trump took to Twitter on Wednesday so there could be no doubt and renewed his attacks on the press – saying that “people got” the areas of the statement the “Fake News Media didn’t cover fairly”. In reading his statements at the rally, Mr Trump had himself omitted something, the lines that related to the “blame on both sides”.
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!
Despite Mr Trump’s broadsides against Mr Flake and public praise of his challenger, Arizona state Senator Kelli Ward, Senate Republicans have not followed suit. A political action committee devoted to preserving Republicans’ Senate majority has funded an ad branding Ms Ward as “crazy”.
The boisterous atmosphere of the rally in Phoenix was also replicated outside of the convention centre where it took place, with thousands gathering in gruelling heat to protest against Mr Trump and his Charlottesville remarks. There were shouting matches and minor scuffles between sections of the pro-Trump and anti-Trump sides, and after the rally, police officers dispersed protesters with tear gas and pepper spray. Five people were arrested, according to the Arizona Republic.
In the comfort of his most fervent fans, Mr Trump often resurrects his free-wheeling 2016 campaign style. The rally was Mr Trump’s eighth rally since taking office in January, and each event is attended by supporters screened by his campaign.
His comparative calm during the the more sedate, teleprompter-assisted speech to the American Legion was striking and the issue for many of his advisers and those that follow his movements is trying to understand which Mr Trump – the one guided by a teleprompter, or the one playing to the crowd – is going to appear in front of the cameras.