On Tuesday night, at a campaign-style rally in Phoenix, Arizona, President Trump told the crowd he had come to deliver a message: "We are fully and totally committed to fighting for our agenda, and we will not stop until the job is done."
But despite that short rationale, it remains unclear what, exactly, Trump was doing in Phoenix on a hot August night, seven months into his presidency. The Trump re-election campaign organized the rally, but it seems a little early to hit the trail. He didn't say anything particularly new, or announce any new initiatives, and the election is still 1,168 days away. (But who's counting?)
That isn't to say Trump didn't say anything of substance. He did briefly focus on tax reform, trade, infrastructure legislation, his proposed border wall with Mexico, and other policy — but then he sharply criticized the "obstructionist Democrats" and handful of Republicans he will need to get any of the aforementioned things done. He threatened a government shutdown if Congress doesn't allocate money for the border wall. "Believe me," he said, "if we have to close down our government, we're building that wall." He hinted very strongly that he would soon pardon former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio. And he said it's likely that the just-commenced renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement with Canada and Mexico would likely end in failure. "Personally, I don't think we can make a deal," he said. "So I think we'll probably end up terminating NAFTA at some point, okay? Probably."
He also boasted about crowd sizes. "There aren't too many people outside protesting, that I can tell you, okay?" he told the crowd, citing the Secret Service. He repeated this throughout the speech, even though thousands of protesters braved the 107 degree weather to show their opposition. And Trump suggested that the crowd inside the Phoenix Convention Center was huge, making a show of asking the fire marshal to do what he could to let in more people; Trump's audience "partially filled" the room, The Washington Post reports, and "did not completely fill the hall."
But mostly, Trump seemed to have traveled to Phoenix to settle scores and get his mojo back. "You were there from the start, you've been there every day since, and believe me, Arizona, I will never forget it," he told the crowd. The rally "was about retrenching," The Arizona Republic said in a editorial. "It was about blaming others. It was about feeding the paranoia of his passionate followers. It was disturbing."
Indeed, most of his speech was consumed with media criticism, aimed at selectively and indignantly rehashing the reaction to his comments on the recent white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. Trump frequently pointed to the news cameras at the back of the room, drumming up boos and jeers from the audience. He took a copy of his various Charlottesville comments out of his pocket and read parts of them. "I'm really doing this to show you how damned dishonest these people are," he said. "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."
When Trump read significant parts of his comments, apologizing to the crowd for being boring, he simply left out the part that people in the media — and prominent Republicans — had criticized: his initial blame on "many sides" for the Charlottesville violence and his doubling down three days later, when he said "both sides" were responsible and the white supremacist march included some "very fine people" mixed in with the thugs. Watching Trump pick and choose his favorite parts of his comments was like looking over the shoulder of a Kardashian as she curated her Instagram feed, posting only the photos that showed her good side, at just the right slant.
"It's time to expose the crooked media deceptions and to challenge the media for their role in formenting divisions," he said, making up a new word. "And yes, by the way, they are trying to take away our history and our heritage, you see that." There were some darkly comic parts to his media-bashing, like when he told his audience that the media couldn't handle the truth, pointing to the TV cameras and their on-air lights. "They're turning those lights off fast," he said, specifically saying that CNN did not want its viewers to watch his speech. That must have been confusing to the people watching on CNN, which broadcast the entire speech.
So, back to the original question: What the hell was Trump doing in Arizona? The same question can be asked of Vice President Mike Pence and HUD Secretary Ben Carson, both of whom spoke before the president.
The Washington Post suggests this rally "was part of a familiar pattern for Trump." Whenever "he finds himself under attack or slipping in popularity, he often holds a rally in a place like this: a diverse blue city that's home to liberal protesters but surrounded by red suburbs and rural towns filled with Trump supporters who will turn out in droves."
The Arizona Republic's Laurie Roberts was less charitable, describing the rally as 90 minutes of Trump "massaging America's biggest ego ... his own."
The audience seemed to enjoy the media-bashing. But at some point, that act may wear thin. After all, the news media isn't selling heroin or other opioids, and it isn't smuggling illegal immigrants into the U.S. or shipping manufacturing jobs overseas. Soon, his supporters may realize that trashing news organizations won't materially help them in any way.