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Unscripted Trump Heads to Tense Rally in Phoenix

First Read is your briefing from Meet the Press and the NBC Political Unit on the day's most important political stories and why they matter.

Trump changes tone for a moment, calls for unity 5:57

Unscripted Trump heads to tense rally in Phoenix

WASHINGTON — If Charlottesville taught us anything, it’s that a scripted President Trump can be vastly different from an unscripted Trump. And that’s why the tone of his rally in Phoenix tonight — which likely will be off the cuff, as most of his rallies are — matters. After all, he’s stepping into a combustible situation in Arizona.

  • He’s recently attacked both of the state’s sitting Republican senators: “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!” Trump tweeted last week. “You mean Sen. McCain, who voted against us getting good health care?” he said in response to a question about McCain and Charlottesville.
  • He’s dangled the possibility that he might pardon controversial Joe Arpaio: “I am seriously considering a pardon for Sheriff Arpaio,” Trump told Fox News last week. "So what's the scoop on me?" Arpaio asked NBC’s Vaughn Hillyard Monday night. "Will he pardon me?" Arpaio was found guilty last month of criminal contempt for defying a judge’s order “to refrain from racially profiling Latinos during patrols and turning them over to federal immigration authorities.”
  • Phoenix’s mayor has begged Trump not to visit after Charlottesville: “America is hurting. And it is hurting largely because Trump has doused racial tensions with gasoline. With his planned visit to Phoenix on Tuesday, I fear the president may be looking to light a match,” Phoenix’s mayor, Greg Stanton, writes in the Washington Post.

In his primetime speech on Afghanistan last night, Trump called for unity. “The young men and women we send to fight our wars abroad deserve to return to a country that is not at war with itself at home,” he said. “We cannot remain a force for peace in the world if we are not at peace with each other.”

The question we have for Trump’s rally at 9:00 p.m. ET tonight: Will there be peace and unity in Phoenix?

Trump announces new approach — but no details — on Afghanistan

As for the substance of President Trump’s remarks last night on Afghanistan, here’s NBC’s Ali Vitali: “President Donald Trump announced a new approach — but no details — for the U.S. war in Afghanistan on Monday, marking a major policy reversal for the man who in recent years had insisted America pull out of the war-torn country.”

Vitali adds, “Acknowledging that his ‘original instinct was to pull out, and historically I like following my instincts,’ Trump said in a prime-time address to the nation from Ft. Myer in Arlington, Virginia, that after becoming president he realized a hasty withdrawal from Afghanistan would cede ground to terror groups. ‘We are not nation-building again,’ Trump said before an audience of service members. ‘We are killing terrorists.’”

Vice President Mike Pence: Trump has 'whole new policy' for Afghanistan 9:03

President singles out Pakistan

Maybe the most striking part of Trump’s speech last night was his singling out of Pakistan. “The next pillar of our new strategy is to change the approach and how to deal with Pakistan. We can no longer be silent about Pakistan’s safe havens for terrorist organizations, the Taliban, and other groups that pose a threat to the region and beyond.”

Trump went on to say, “Pakistan has much to gain from partnering with our effort in Afghanistan. It has much to lose by continuing to harbor criminals and terrorists… It is time for Pakistan to demonstrate its commitment to civilization, order, and to peace.”

Republicans praise Trump’s speech

Many of the same Republican politicians who criticized the president’s response to Charlottesville IMMEDIATELY praised his speech on Afghanistan, NBC’s Adam Edelman writes.

  • “House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., said he was ‘pleased’ with Trump’s plan and called it ‘a new Trump strategy, doctrine — principled realism.’”
  • “Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., … said the president’s speech was a ‘big step in the right direction.’”
  • “Good #AfghanStrategy & excellent speech by @POTUS laying it out to the nation,” Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., tweeted.

But the non-hawkish members of the Republican Party criticized the speech. “Nation building should not be our job & it has consistently been a fool’s errand for us particularly in this region,” Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., said before the speech.

And, Edelman notes, "Breitbart News ... led its site with three glaringly critical headlines of the speech, including one that dubbed Trump's speech a 'Flip-Flop.'"

Pence, in “Today” interview, defends Trump on Charlottesville

In an interview with NBC’s Matt Lauer from the White House, Vice President Mike Pence defended Trump’s response to Charlottesville. Here’s part of the interview:

LAUER: Mr. Vice-president, have you ever met a Neo-Nazi or a white nationalist or white supremacist that you consider to be a fine person?

PENCE: Never in my life have I met anyone associated with white supremacists, or KKK, or the Neo-Nazi movement that I would have anything other than contempt for.

[snip]

LAUER: Well, but the president said that there were fine people on both sides of that rally in Charlottesville. So when he said those words, you obviously didn't agree with them. Did they offend you, those words?

PENCE: The president and I were very clear last weekend in the wake of the terribly tragic events in Charlottesville that we denounced bigotry, and hatred, and violence in all of its forms. The president specifically—

LAUER: But he said there were fine people on both sides of—

PENCE: Matt, the president specifically denounced white supremacists, Neo-Nazis, and the KKK repeatedly. And he did it on — he did it when he denounced hate and violence on Saturday. He did it in his address to the nation Monday. And he did it again in the press conference.

More from our NBC/Marist polls of Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin

About one-third of Republicans say they’re embarrassed by Trump’s conduct as president: Some more numbers digging inside of the crosstabs of our latest NBC/Marist polls (among all adults):

Has Trump’s conduct as president made you feel — proud, embarrassed, unsure?

Michigan

  • Democrats: 8 percent proud, 89 percent embarrassed
  • GOP: 62 percent proud, 27 percent embarrassed
  • Indies: 28 percent proud, 64 percent embarrassed

Pennsylvania

  • Dems: 6 percent proud, 89 percent embarrassed
  • GOP: 54 percent proud, 32 percent embarrassed
  • Indies: 20 percent proud, 66 percent embarrassed

Wisconsin

  • Dems: 2 percent proud, 95 percent embarrassed
  • GOP: 55 percent proud, 31 percent embarrassed
  • Indies: 20 percent proud, 63 percent embarrassed