Trump holds campaign rally in Phoenix

PHOENIX Ariz.– President Donald Trump kicked off his campaign rally Tuesday, defending his responses to the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, and slamming the “damn dishonest” media.

“What happened in Charlottesville strikes at the core of America. And tonight, this entire arena stands united against the thugs who perpetrate hatred and violence,” Trump said, “I strongly condemn neo-Nazis, white Supremacists and the KKK.”

Less than 24 hours after delivering a primetime speech outlining his Afghanistan strategy, Trump is holding a campaign rally in Phoenix, with Vice President Mike Pence and Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson speaking.

In anticipation of Trump’s trip, the political world was buzzing about not just whether the President would set off controversy in Phoenix — but which specific hot-button clash he could wade into.

Could he endorse Kelli Ward or another Republican challenger to Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake, who recently wrote a book decrying Trump’s corrupting influence on the party?

Two Republicans who are openly considering primary campaigns against Flake next year were part of the pre-program at the rally. Jeff DeWit, the Arizona state treasurer, was the MC, tweeting photos of himself with Trump from earlier in the day. And Faith Graham, the 13-year-old daughter of Robert Graham, the former state GOP chairman, led the Pledge of Allegiance.

Notably not part of the program: Kelli Ward, the former state senator who Trump praised on Twitter for running against Flake last week. Ward is expected to be in the crowd but is not speaking and was not a VIP attendee. Still, in a show of support perhaps left over from Ward drawing 39% in a primary against John McCain last year, hundreds — likely thousands — of people standing in line outside the event carried Ward signs or wore Ward stickers.

Trump signaled at his Phoenix rally on Tuesday that he may pardon Joe Arpaio, the controversial former Maricopa County, Arizona sheriff.

“Do the people in this room like Sheriff Joe?” he asked.

He paused as supporters applauded.

“So was Sheriff Joe convicted for doing his job?” he asked.

“You know what, I’ll make a prediction: I think he’s going to be just fine,” Trump said. “OK? But I won’t do it tonight, because I don’t want to cause any controversy.”

“But Sheriff Joe should feel good,” the President added, hinting strongly that he would pardon Arpaio sometime in the future.

Arpaio was found guilty last month of criminal contempt for disregarding a court order in a racial profiling case.

“‘Was Sheriff Joe convicted for doing his job?'” the American Civil Liberties Union tweeted, echoing Trump’s question. “No, he was convicted for violating court order for discriminating against Latinos.”

Earlier in the day, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders had said that Trump would not declare a decision on whether to pardon Arpaio.

Arpaio said he wasn’t going to attend Trump’s rally Tuesday.

It wasn’t because he didn’t want to go.

“I haven’t been invited,” Arpaio told CNN on Monday, adding that he would go if he were invited.

Last week, the President appeared to hint that he may pardon Arpaio — an early Trump supporter and a lightning rod for more than a decade in the immigration battle. Trump retweeted a story from Fox News last week that reported he was “seriously considering” pardoning the convicted former sheriff.

Groups such as the ACLU criticized talk of a potential pardon, saying the President would be undoing a conviction secured by career attorneys at the Justice Department.

Arpaio he said it was Trump’s decision when asked if he had any comment on a possible presidential pardon.

In office for more than two decades, Arpaio called himself “America’s toughest sheriff,” and Republican presidential candidates often sought his endorsement.

The lawman made cracking down on illegal immigration a priority for his deputies, a stance that gained him national notoriety. The brash, unapologetic sheriff also became a favorite of conservative cable television commentators, while immigrant rights activists viewed him as a villain.

In July, Arpaio was found guilty of criminal contempt for refusing to follow a judge’s order barring him from the racial profiling of Latinos. He was accused of violating a court order by continuing patrols targeting immigrants. Arpaio has contended the order wasn’t clear and he didn’t intend to violate it.

The 85-year-old could face up to six months in jail when he is sentenced October 5. His attorneys have said they would appeal the verdict to get a jury trial.

A media-savvy sheriff

During his run as sheriff, Arpaio embraced controversy and media attention.

First elected in 1993, he was infamous for tactics such as cutting salt and pepper from jail meals, giving inmates pink underwear and having female and juvenile chain gangs do manual work.

Not long after his election, he opened Tent City, an infamous outdoor jail that critics said was demeaning for inmates as they stayed in scorching heat over 100 degrees and ate calorie-controlled meals.

Arpaio also opened a probe into former President Barack Obama’s birth certificate — a claim that has been thoroughly debunked.

Arpaio was the poster child for hard-line immigration policies until he lost his bid for a seventh term as sheriff in November.

His legal problems had begun much earlier.

In 2007, a group of Latinos filed a class action lawsuit claiming Arpaio’s policing policies amounted to racial discrimination. A federal investigation and federal lawsuit followed.

In 2011, a US District Court judge first issued a temporary injunction, barring Arpaio from detaining people solely based on their immigration status after several Hispanics claimed he discriminated against them. Two years later, the same judge issued a permanent order, ruling that Maricopa’s handling of people of Latino descent amounted to racial profiling.

Last year, the judge asked federal prosecutors to file criminal contempt charges against Arpaio and several subordinates, alleging they had disregarded the court’s directions, made false statements and attempted to obstruct further inquiry.

Before he became sheriff, Arpaio served in the US Army and then was a police officer, a federal narcotics agent and became head of the Drug Enforcement Administration for Arizona, according to his now-removed sheriff’s site bio.

RELATED: Hundreds brave Phoenix heat to line up early for Trump rally

At least one question — whether Trump would pardon Joe Arpaio, the controversial former Arizona sheriff who was convicted of contempt by a federal judge last month — appeared to be answered before Trump touched down in the Grand Canyon state.

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders asked on Air Force One said no news would be made Tuesday on a would-be Arpaio pardon.

“I can tell you that there will be no discussion of that today at any point and no action will be taken on that front at any time today,” Sanders said.

Trump’s arrival at the Phoenix Convention Center will be greeted by mass protests from progressive and anti-bigotry groups.

Democrats in Arizona, including Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton, are lambasting Trump for even visiting the state — particularly for a campaign rally.

Trump’s unpredictable and bombastic style “makes us worry that he will come here and make things worse, not better,” said Rep. Ruben Gallego, an Arizona Democrat.

“President Trump does not know how to be a unifier — does not know how to ease the pain of this country like we saw George Bush do after 9/11,” Gallego said Monday.

Jevin Hodge, the vice chairman of the Arizona Democratic Party, said Trump’s “racially inflamed rhetoric is not welcome here in Arizona and is not what this country needs at this time.”

First stop: Yuma

Trump’s day in Arizona started near the border, where he viewed equipment used by US Customs and Border Patrol agents to track illegal crossings.

Trump’s aides planned for him to visit the US-Mexico border as part of his visit Tuesday to Yuma, but were forced to scrap the visit because of security concerns, according to a person familiar with the situation.

According to background provided by the White House on Monday evening, Trump was slated to visit the San Luis II commercial crossing, about 20 miles south of Yuma.

But when he stopped in Yuma on Tuesday, he did not leave the grounds of the Marine base where he landed. The person did not specify the nature of the threat.

Asked for comment, the White House referred to the Secret Service.

“The Secret Service does not comment on its protective operations,” said Cathy Milhoan, a Secret Service spokeswoman.

The administration has praised the Yuma border patrol sector for the miles of secure fencing, constructed over the past decade, which they say has curtailed the flow of undocumented immigrants crossing the border illegally.

Those commitments were made during previous administrations, however, and previous presidents have claimed credit. George W. Bush toured the border near Yuma during his second term, riding a dune buggy along the fencing and heralding funds he approved to build it.

The immigration issue has been a touchstone of Trump’s throughout his campaign and the early days of his administration, centered on his promise to construct a wall along the US-Mexico border.

The project has seen setbacks, including an acknowledgment that Mexico will not — at least for now — pay for the wall’s construction, as Trump has repeatedly promised. Instead, Congress has approved some funding for the measure, which Trump insists will be repaid.

On Tuesday, administration officials sought to underscore Trump’s tough-on-immigration stance, attributing a drop in border apprehensions to his actions and rhetoric over the first six months of his tenure.

Allies and enemies in the area

While Trump allies are likely to be on hand at the Phoenix rally, some of Arizona’s top Republicans — including Flake and Sen. John McCain, who is undergoing cancer treatment — will not be there Tuesday night.

Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey, a Republican who is up for re-election in 2018, will greet Trump on the tarmac when he lands Tuesday afternoon but will not attend the rally, his office said.

“Gov. Ducey’s focus has been working with law enforcement toward a safe event in downtown Phoenix for all those involved and in the area. That will continue to be his priority during the event and afterwards,” Ducey spokesman Daniel Scarpinato told The Arizona Republic.

Flake — who took on Trump in a new book, “Conscience of a Conservative” — wouldn’t respond Monday morning after an East Valley Chambers of Commerce breakfast to questions about Trump’s tweet last week that Flake is “a non-factor in the Senate” and “toxic!”

“I don’t worry about it at all,” Flake said.

Flake also wouldn’t directly answer questions about whether Trump is right to seemingly endorse his primary challenger in his 2018 re-election bid. Trump, who has long criticized Flake and mused last year about spending $10 million of his own money to unseat him, praised Ward, a conservative former state senator who is already running against Flake, in a tweet last week.

For her part, Ward is expected to attend the rally Tuesday, though as part of the general public, her spokeswoman Jennifer Lawrence told CNN.

Trump’s tweet said it is “great to see” that she is running against Flake.

“That’s not my realm. That’s somebody else’s,” Flake said. “I just — I’m running my own campaign. It’s going well. And what the President does, that’s his prerogative.”