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President Trump Blames Media For Divided Country During Phoenix Rally


It was the campaign-style Donald Trump who took to the podium last night in Phoenix.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Why did it take a day? He must be a racist. It took a day.

GREENE: ...Blaming the media, there, over the backlash to his response to the deadly events in Charlottesville.


TRUMP: For the most part, honestly, these are really, really dishonest people, and they're bad people. And I really think they don't like our country. I really believe that.

GREENE: President Trump also took not-so-veiled jabs at Arizona's two sitting Republican senators, frequent Trump critics John McCain and Jeff Flake, and then threatened to shut down the government if he didn't get funding to build a southern border wall. And even though the White House said this topic would not come up at all, President Trump brought it up himself - he suggested he would pardon the controversial Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio, convicted last month for failing to halt his racial profiling campaign.


TRUMP: Was Sheriff Joe convicted for doing his job? That's what...


TRUMP: He should've had a jury. But you know what? I'll make a prediction. I think he's going to be just fine, OK?


GREENE: Let's talk through what we heard from the president last night with Michael Steel. He is in our studio. He's a Republican strategist, longtime adviser to former House Speaker John Boehner, and also served on Jeb Bush's presidential campaign.

Good morning, and thanks for coming in.

MICHAEL STEEL: Good to be with you.

GREENE: So we heard a pretty measured President Trump laying out his Afghanistan strategy a day before this. What did - what kind of president did you hear last night in Phoenix?

STEEL: (Laughter) Oh, this is very much a Dr.-Jekyll-and-Mr.-Hyde situation. Last night, we heard a - it was almost like a classic rock act rehearsing their great - rehashing their greatest hits at a state fair somewhere. He was back in pure campaign style. He was divorced from the realities of his office, divorced from the realities of governing - and playing to the crowd, which seems to be what he enjoys.

GREENE: And we should say, the crowd sounded very much into this speech. I mean, it sounded very supportive. Does it - what does that tell us about his base of support right now?

STEEL: Well, this is what I call the Fifth Avenue crowd. These are the guys that he was referring to when he said he could shoot someone in the middle of Fifth Avenue and his real supporters would stick with him. There is a portion of the electorate, probably roughly around 20, 25 percent that will be with him no matter what. And that's the portion of the electorate that he's playing to right now.

GREENE: Did you hear things in the speech that you liked, that worked for you?

STEEL: No, not really. I mean, I think that the speech the night before, laying out the way forward in Afghanistan, was a statesman-like speech. It was a speech that a lot of national leaders could have given. It was a responsible and measured action on a complicated issue. And as if exhausted by the effort of actually governing, the president last night seemed to just unleash his id and go back to the campaign-style rallies that he loved so much.

GREENE: Is this a sign that, after the removal of Steve Bannon, controversial former White House adviser, that the reset some people were expecting is not happening? Or is this just something, no matter whether there's a reset or not, President Trump's just going to do from time to time?

STEEL: Yeah, I think yes and no is the answer. Despite all the focus on Mr. Bannon, a lot of the things that President Trump passionately believes long predate his involvement in the campaign, long predate the campaign itself. The president, on a certain few key issues like immigration, like the economy, like trade, has been remarkably consistent for his entire public life, going back to the 1970s and '80s. So it's not like removing one adviser is going to change his mind on these key issues.

What's troubling and surprising, I thought, was the threat to shut down the government over funding for a border wall, which is just - in a - in an autumn when the business of keeping the lights on in the U.S. government is going to be difficult - raising the debt limit, funding the government, trying to make progress on important issues like tax reform and infrastructure improvements - throwing that Molotov cocktail into the mix is completely unhelpful.

GREENE: So he went after two senators, including, I mean, John McCain, Jeff Flake - not naming them, but it was pretty clear who he was talking about. I just wonder - you know, you have advised people like John Boehner, like Jeb Bush, who are considered so-called mainstream Republicans. If you're advising someone like Jeff Flake right now, is it basically a choice, you know - support a president who you have a lot of disagreements with or let your party rupture. Is that the choice?

STEEL: Not that directly. I think that Senator Flake is a popular, conservative, thoughtful man. He's a great senator. I think that his book about the president in part is well worth reading because it is such a thoughtful and measured look at dealing with President Trump. There was something almost childish about the fact that the president didn't say the names of the two home-state senators but referred to them repeatedly. You know, it's - don't, you know - almost like kids in the backseat of a car, you know - I'm not touching you, I'm not touching you.

It's - and the ridiculous thing is that anything the president wants to accomplish in terms of public policy requires cooperation with the Republican-controlled United States Senate, so he needs to be targeting Democrats in states that he won last year, not members of his own party.

GREENE: Speaking to veteran Republican strategist Michael Steel, who joined us in our studios this morning. Thanks for coming in.

STEEL: Good to be with you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.