President Donald Trump is blaming the media for the widespread condemnation of his response to a Charlottesville, Va., protest organized by white supremacists that led to the killing of a counter-protester.
Trump opened his political rally in Phoenix with a call for unity, saying, "What happened in Charlottesville strikes at the core of America and tonight, this entire arena stands united in forceful condemnation of the thugs that perpetrated hatred and violence."
But he quickly trained his ire on the media, shouting that he "openly called for healing unity and love" in the immediate aftermath of Charlottesville and claiming the "very dishonest media" had misrepresented him. He read from his three responses to the violence — getting more animated with each one.
"I did this three times," he declared.
Trump was criticized by Republican and Democrats alike for failing to call out neo-Nazis and other hate groups by name in his first response to the protest and then insisting there was blame on "both sides."
Trump is also repeating the message of unity he delivered Monday evening.
He says, "this entire arena stands united in forceful condemnation of the thugs that perpetrated hatred and violence."
Trump spoke after Vice President Mike Pence and others called repeatedly for unity.
Housing Secretary Ben Carson and Dr. Alveda King, the niece of civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr., were among the openers. Franklin Graham, son of the evangelist Billy Graham, led the rally-goers in prayer, saying, "We're divided racially, and we're adrift morally."
Outside the Phoenix convention center, shouting matches and minor scuffles erupted between Trump supporters and protesters gathered near the site of his latest campaign rally. Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton had asked Trump to delay his political event to allow for more time of national healing after Charlottesville.
Trump teased a pardon for former Sheriff Joe Arpaio, asking the crowd what they thought of him. Loud cheers erupted. The former Maricopa County sheriff is awaiting sentencing after his conviction in federal court for disobeying court orders to stop his immigration patrols.
"So was Sheriff Joe convicted for doing his job?" Trump asked. "I'll make a prediction: I think he's going to be just fine."
There had been intense speculation in recent days that the president might issue a pardon for Arpaio, best known for his immigration crackdowns as the top lawman in metropolitan Phoenix. Trump says he "won't do it tonight" because he doesn't want to cause controversy.
Arpaio and Trump share similar views on immigration enforcement, and the lawman campaigned for Trump several times during the 2016 race.
Earlier, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Trump wouldn't discuss or take action on a pardon "at any point today," even though the president had told Fox News he was considering it.
In the comfort of his most fervent fans, Trump resurrected his free-wheeling 2016 campaign style, pinging insults at perceived enemies such as the media and meandering from topic to topic without a clear theme. Although Trump's high-profile warm-up acts suggested the president's speech would be about unity, the president was more intent on settling scores.
Neither of Arizona's two Republican senators appeared with Trump.
Republican Sen. Jeff Flake, a conservative, has been a frequent target of Trump's wrath.
The president tweeted last week: "Great to see that Dr. Kelli Ward is running against Flake Jeff Flake, who is WEAK on borders, crime and a non-factor in Senate. He's toxic!" Flake has been on tour promoting his book that says the Republican Party's embrace of Trump has left conservatism withering.
In a modest but telling swipe at Ward and, by extension, at Trump, the Senate Leadership Fund, a political committee closely aligned with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, is spending $10,000 on digital ads that say of her, "Not conservative, just crazy ideas."
Arizona's other senator, John McCain, is undergoing treatment for an aggressive form of brain cancer. Trump has been critical of McCain for voting against a Republican health care bill. Trump hinted at McCain when talking about the failure to approve a health care bill, but did not mention him by name.
Tuesday's events put Trump in more comfortable political territory than in recent days.
He began his Arizona visit with a brief trip to the southern edge of the country.
While touring a Marine Corps base in Yuma that is a hub of operations for the U.S. Border Patrol, Trump inspected a drone and other border equipment on display in a hangar.
Trump shook his head as he was shown a series of everyday objects, such as a fire extinguisher, that had been refashioned to secretly transport drugs across the border. Afterward, he spent about 20 minutes greeting service members in the grueling, 106-degree heat, signing caps with his "Make America Great Again" campaign slogan and posing for selfies on the tarmac just steps from Air Force One.