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Trump Will Return To Phoenix For A Rally But Is He Welcome There?

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

President Trump heads west to Arizona for a campaign rally tonight - this after more than a week of intense criticism from people outside and inside his party. Just last night, House Speaker Paul Ryan criticized Trump's back-and-forth statements on the violent racists in Charlottesville.

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PAUL RYAN: I do believe that he messed up in his comments on Tuesday, when it sounded like a moral equivocation, or at the very least, moral ambiguity, when we need extreme moral clarity.

CHANG: Though his poll numbers are slumping and Phoenix's mayor asked him not to hold this rally, President Trump is hoping for a big welcome in the state. Joining us now from Phoenix by Skype is Chris Buskirk, the publisher of American Greatness. He's close with the White House and to the president's former chief strategist, Steve Bannon.

Good morning, Chris.

CHRIS BUSKIRK: Good morning. How are you?

CHANG: I'm good. So what kind of reception do you expect President Trump will get in Phoenix later today?

BUSKIRK: Well, look, this is anecdotal, of course, but if what I'm hearing from people - just, you know, sort of ordinary people here in Phoenix who are - who've gotten tickets to go tonight - I think the reception's going to be extraordinary. I think this is going to be another one of these events like we saw him have in West Virginia a couple weeks ago and in Youngstown, Ohio a few weeks before that.

There's going to - expected to be long lines of people. It's a full house. I expect it to be a big night for the president. He thrives in this environment when he gets out in front of people a lot more - I think a lot more than when he's in Washington.

CHANG: You know, yesterday, I spoke with Julius Krein, who helped start the blog that inspired your publication American Greatness. And, as you know, he's disavowed his support for President Trump. Here's what he said.

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JULIUS KREIN: After Charlottesville, his refusal to state the facts and condemn the groups responsible - and in this case, you know, there was no claiming that it was a faulty earpiece, or a misstatement or anything because he just kept re-emphasizing the same comments - it became clear that what he really cared about all along, exactly as his critics said, was the sort of worst parts of his campaign.

CHANG: What do you say to that more than a week after Charlottesville? Has Trump energized the worst parts of his campaign?

BUSKIRK: Yeah, no, I don't think so. I think that when President Trump - he made his position clear. You know, he made a statement. He said racism is evil. Those who cause violence in its name are criminals and thugs. He went on, he said include - that includes the KKK, neo-Nazis, white supremacists and other hate groups. He called them repugnant to everything that we hold dear as Americans. You know, I think that what I...

CHANG: But you don't think his statement later about both sides being at fault made that more ambiguous?

BUSKIRK: I don't think that made that more ambiguous. Here's why. And I do think that his statement about the both side thing, I think that was wide open to misinterpretation, and it was and it has been by his political opponents. But when he's made that denunciation - I think that in a less politically charged atmosphere, that would've been taken at face value. I take it as face value, and I think we should take him at his word on that.

CHANG: You know, both of Arizona's Republican senators, John McCain and Jeff Flake, have been critical of President Trump. And Trump's gone after them. He's called Flake, quote, "weak on borders and crime." And he slammed McCain for his vote against the health care bill. What does picking fights within his own party get the president?

BUSKIRK: Yeah, I don't think that this is a fight he picked. I mean, John McCain has gone out of his way, as has his protege, Jeff Flake - have gone out of their way to stick a thumb in the president's eye whenever possible. John McCain even does it when he's overseas, which I think is wholly inappropriate.

If you want to have a policy disagreement, fine. But it's taken on something of some personal animus when it - with regards to McCain, and even with - to Flake. And they are, you know, and they have taken a certain pleasure in trying to goad the president. You know, how does he respond to that? I think he responds by saying we need better senators, better Republican senators, people who can get on board with what voters supported last year.

CHANG: But has that divisiveness has made it harder for the party to govern, to come together and get things done?

BUSKIRK: No, I don't think so. And here's why - because Congress hasn't been able to do anything this year. I mean, we have this malingering, do-nothing Republican Congress, and that is not on the president. That's on Congress. Now, they have done things like - have found a way to not pass Obamacare repeal. Well, if there's one thing a Republican Congress you would've thought would've been able to do is do that. They promised to do it for seven years. You can't blame - you cannot blame the president for that. That, I think, lies at the feet of Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan.

CHANG: I want to turn really quickly to the subject of Steve Bannon, who was Trump's chief strategist. When we spoke to you last week, Bannon was still in the White House. You said that if he was forced out instead of leaving on his own, there could be a real backlash from Trump. Multiple sources say he was pushed out. So do you think there could be a backlash? Could Bannon potentially work against the president?

BUSKIRK: I don't think that the - that Bannon will work against the president. But I will tell you that people who support the president's America First, populist, nationalist agenda I think viewed this with significant suspicion. They're going to be watching President Trump to see which way he goes from here on out.

CHANG: All right, Chris Buskirk is the publisher of American Greatness. Thank you very much for joining us this morning.

BUSKIRK: My pleasure. Thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.