President Trump stepped on stage in Phoenix on Tuesday night with something clearly eating at him. Minutes into his style rally, we learned what: It wasn't the white supremacists and the Ku Klux Klan and the neo-Nazis who threw the nation into chaos and allegedly killed a woman in Virginia last week. Or the intractable 16-year war in Afghanistan that he just announced he's revving up.
It's the media.
Trump spent nearly a third — if not more— of his 90-minute rally rehashing his public remarks in the wake of Charlottesville and complaining that he was widely criticized for them. In fact, about the only time he mentioned the racial tensions and violence stirred up last week was in the context of defending himself.
The president was so frustrated with media coverage of him that he printed out copies of some of the remarks he gave in the wake of the violence. He read them aloud to the crowd, pausing to express total disbelief that the tone of the coverage wasn't more positive.
“I love the people in our country— the people. All of the people,” he said at one point, waving his remarks around. “It says: 'I love all of the people of the country.' I didn't say I love you because you're black, or I love you because you're white, or I love you because you're from Japan or you're from China or you're from Kenya or you're from Scotland or Sweden. I love all the people of our country. By the way folks, this is my exact words. I love all of the people of our country.”
“And then they say: Is he a racist!”
Clearly, Trump's lashing out against Charlottesville coverage was premeditated. And the fact that the media was the dominant theme of his first trip back to Arizona since winning the state by more than three points underscores two truisms about Trump:
1. He cares about the coverage he receives. A lot.
2. He blames the media for nearly all of his problems as president.
Actually, Trump didn't just blame the media for his problems on Tuesday. After one of the worst weeks of his tumultuous, halting presidency, he stretched that attack line and blamed the media for the nation's problems. In one speech he:
-Accused the media of turning “a blind eye" to gang violence
-Accused the media of “trying to take away our history and heritage” (re: Confederate statues that states and cities are taking down after Charlottesville).
-Accused the media of giving a platform to hate groups (“The only people giving the platform to these hate groups is the media itself.")
-Called journalists “sick people”
-Said this: “You would think they want to make our country great again. And I honestly believe they don't.”
-Said the media is "the source of division in our country."
“If you want to discover the source of our division in the country, look no further than the fake news and the crooked media, which would rather get ratings and clicks than tell the truth,” he said.
What Trump failed to mention (another Trump truism: He leaves out context and facts when it suits him) is that the country isn't divided over the media's coverage of his remarks.
It's divided over the white supremacists who showed up in Charlottesville to prevent the tearing down of a Confederate statue and got violent. And it's not divided over how the president responded. A majority of Americans, 56 percent, don't approve of the president equating these people with counterprotesters, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.
Nor do key members of Trump's own party approve of the way he handled it. “The president has not yet been able to demonstrate the stability nor some of the competence that he needs to demonstrate in order to be successful," Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) said after Trump's news conference where he backed off denouncing white supremacists.
“I do believe that he messed up in his comments Tuesday,” House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) said at a CNN town hall on Monday. “When it sounded like moral equivalency, or at the very least, moral ambiguity, when we need extreme moral clarity.”
And white supremacists do feel emboldened by the president. Here's one of them, Richard Spencer, chiming in during Trump's tirade on the media:
Trump went to Phoenix with other chips on his shoulder. He didn't mention them by name, but he made a big show of hinting at his unhappiness with Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake (R) for writing a book equating the Republican Party's relationship with Trump to a pact with the devil, and with Sen. John McCain (R) for casting a surprise “no” vote that sunk the Republicans' health-care bill.
“One vote! Speak to your senator. Speak to your senator,” Trump said, also making a big show of the fact that he was following advice not to call out Flake and McCain by name.
He again called on Senate Republicans to get rid of the filibuster so they can pass legislation with 51 votes instead of 60. (Republicans hold 52 out of 100 seats in the Senate, which means the Senate is a major hurdle to Republicans' agenda.)
But all of that came second, in Trump's worldview, to the coverage he received after Charlottesville. That, of course, probably will earn him more criticism and negative coverage. Trump probably won't be able to let that go, either.
And Trump's all-out war against the media continues.