WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump looks to get his administration back on track after a difficult week with a campaign-style rally of supporters Tuesday in Phoenix, Arizona. Trump is trying to move past the controversy from last week when he blamed protesters “on both sides” for the violence at a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.
The president appeared to reference the controversy Monday night in a speech outlining his administration’s approach to Afghanistan. Trump did not specifically refer to Charlottesville, but said, “We cannot remain a force for peace in the world if we are not at peace with each other.” He added, “Love for America requires love for all of its people. When we open our hearts to patriotism, there is no room for prejudice, no place for bigotry and no tolerance for hate.”
Last week, the president set off a political firestorm when he told reporters at Trump Tower that “you had some very bad people in that group. But you also had some people that were very fine people on both sides.” Trump’s remarks brought condemnation from many Democrats and several Republicans as well.
House Speaker Paul Ryan said Monday that Trump “could have done better” with his response to Charlottesville. “I do believe he messed up in his comments on Tuesday when it sounded like a moral equivocation…when we needed moral clarity.” Ryan spoke at a town hall on CNN.
Connecting with the base
Trump’s rally in Phoenix is part of a continuing effort to reconnect with his base of supporters, as he did earlier this month in West Virginia; but, a growing number of Republicans have warned Trump that he needs to do more to heal the divisions in the country on display in Charlottesville and in a recent protest in Boston.
“I think our president needs to take stock of the role he plays in our nation and move beyond himself,” said Republican Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee. “Helping inspire divisions because it generates support from your political base is not a formula for causing our nation to advance and overcome the many issues that we have to deal with right now.”
In the wake of Charlottesville, many experts said Trump’s leadership skills are under increasing scrutiny.
“For a lot of people, I think, what this reveals is a sort of inability to navigate difficult issues, an inability to be moral leader on important issues when it is called upon,” said Hans Noel, a political scientist at Georgetown University, via Skype.
Support weak in key states
Recent public opinion polls show the president still below 40 percent approval, although his political base largely appears to be sticking with him. And a new Marist poll found that voters in three key states won by Trump last November are becoming disenchanted.
Trump’s approval rating is only at 33 percent in both Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, and down to 36 percent in Michigan. All three states narrowly supported Trump over Democrat Hillary Clinton, providing him with a combined 46 electoral votes that propelled him to victory.
More than six in 10 voters in each of the three states also said they were embarrassed by President Trump’s actions in office so far. Between 24 and 28 percent in each of the states said the president made them proud.
Trump is increasingly presenting Republicans with a dilemma.
“They really can’t live with him because he is a drag on their politics and there is nothing more that office-holders care about than their own political survival,” said American University presidential historian Allan Lichtman. “On the other hand, they can’t live without him because they are deathly afraid of losing his political base.”
During his rally in Phoenix, Trump is expected to make another pitch for his border wall with Mexico, even though congressional funding appears to be in doubt. The president could also make an announcement on whether he will issue a pardon for former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio. Arpaio was recently convicted of contempt of court by a federal judge and has long been a hero to hardliners looking to stop illegal immigration.
Pro-immigration groups oppose the idea. “I hope there is no pardon,” said Petra Falcon of Promise Arizona, interviewed by VOA’s Celia Mendoza. “I hope he [Trump] allows the due process that has been given.” Arpaio is scheduled to be sentenced October 5.
It will also be Trump’s first rally without the guidance of his long-time chief political strategist, Steve Bannon, who was fired last week after repeated clashes with various White House advisers over the president’s first seven months in office.
Jim Malone has served as VOA’s National correspondent covering U.S. elections and politics since 1995. Prior to that he was a VOA congressional correspondent and served as VOA’s East Africa Correspondent from 1986 to 1990. Jim began his VOA career with the English to Africa Service in 1983.