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Trump's Tone This Week: Calling For Unity; Sowing Partisan Division

Aug 23, 2017
Originally published on August 23, 2017 4:39 pm
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President Trump made an appeal for national unity today at an American Legion convention in Reno, Nev. He suggested that all Americans should set aside their differences the way service members do in pursuit of a common mission. Trump's tone at a campaign rally in Arizona last night was very different. NPR's Scott Horsley reports.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: At the American Legion today, Trump painted an optimistic portrait of a United States of America - one people bound together by their shared love of country.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We are not defined by the color of our skin, the figure on our paycheck or the party of our politics. We are defined by our shared humanity.

HORSLEY: Trump sounded a similar theme with his primetime speech on Monday when he announced plans for Afghanistan. The president told a group of uniformed service members, when we open our hearts to patriotism, there is no room for prejudice. It's the kind of unifying tone Trump's handlers would like to hear more of. But...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU CAN'T ALWAYS GET WHAT YOU WANT")

THE ROLLING STONES: (Singing) You can't always get what you want.

HORSLEY: At a raucous campaign rally in Phoenix last night, there was a lot less unity and a lot more grievance as Trump took aim at Democrats, some of his fellow Republicans and his frequent targets in the news business.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: The very dishonest media - those people right up there with all the cameras...

(BOOING)

HORSLEY: Trump's most recent beef with the news media stems from coverage of his reaction to the deadly demonstration by white supremacists in Charlottesville, Va.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: They don't want to report that I spoke out forcefully against hatred, bigotry and violence and strongly condemned the neo-Nazis, the white supremacists and the KKK.

(CHEERING, APPLAUSE)

HORSLEY: Trump did condemn those groups by name with a carefully scripted statement two days after the demonstration. But he then undermined that message the following day with an ad lib news conference in which he insisted there were good people and troublemakers on both sides.

JACK PITNEY: The speechwriters can try to keep him on script for scripted events. But with Trump, this is night at the improv.

HORSLEY: Political analyst Jack Pitney of Claremont McKenna College says when the president ad libs, he's less likely to sound unifying or well-informed and more likely to go for the gut, the easy applause line or an appeal to prejudice. On Monday, during his well-received Afghanistan speech, Trump largely stuck to his prepared text. But by Tuesday, he was eager to escape the speechwriter's restraints.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: They all said, Mr. President, your speech was so good last night. Please, please, Mr. President, don't mention any names.

HORSLEY: Trump didn't name names. But there was no doubt who he was talking about when he complained that Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona cast a decisive vote against the GOP health care bill.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: And nobody wants me to talk about your other senator who's weak on borders, weak on crime. So I won't talk about him.

HORSLEY: Trump's hardcore supporters in the Phoenix Convention Center loved it. But Pitney says attacking his fellow Republicans won't help the president get anything done in Congress.

PITNEY: So this is extremely damaging to any kind of legislative strategy that he has if in fact he has any legislative strategy.

HORSLEY: Trump still has big ambitions for overhauling the tax code. But first, Congress has to pass a budget, raise the federal debt limit and OK funding to keep the government's lights on. Meanwhile, the president is demanding lawmakers approve funding for his promised border wall.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: Now, the obstructionist Democrats would like us not to do it. But believe me. If have to close down our government, we're building that wall.

HORSLEY: The wall along the border with Mexico may or may not get built. But Trump's off-script remarks are erecting plenty of barriers within the U.S. even as his speechwriters compose lofty language about national unity. Scott Horsley, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.