President Donald Trump on Tuesday mounted an aggressive defense of his response to a deadly far-right march in Virginia, using a rally speech to condemn "dishonest" media coverage of his widely criticized remarks.
Trump faced bipartisan outrage after blaming "many sides" for violence at the rally in Charlottesville, in which one anti-fascist protester was killed.
Re-reading his statements that followed the clashes, he railed at reporters at the rally in Phoenix, Arizona, for misrepresenting his remarks -- but omitted the equivocation that had sparked the backlash in the first place.
"The very dishonest media... and I mean truly dishonest people in the media and the fake media, they make up stories. They have no sources in many cases. They say 'a source says' -- there is no such thing," he said.
"But they don't report the facts. Just like 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."
Trump dedicated about half an hour of his 78-minute speech to attacking the "sick people" in the news media, before turning his fire on his own side.
The speech was cheered raucously by supporters inside the conference center, though thousands of anti-Trump protesters, who had lined up under a blistering sun in Phoenix hours before Trump's arrival, later clashed with police outside the venue.
Police deployed tear gas to disperse them, according to AFP reporters at the scene.
Jonathan Howard, a spokesman for the city's police force, said that five arrests had been made and that protesters had thrown rocks, bottles and tear gas at police.
- Shot across the bow -
Speculation had been building that Trump would use the rally to formally endorse a challenger to Arizona Senator Jeff Flake, a moderate incumbent, in a shot across the bow of skeptical Republicans.
He mocked both Flake and fellow Arizona Republican Senator John McCain, implying that McCain had sabotaged Republican healthcare reforms, but elaborately avoided mentioning either by name.
Veering off script, Trump shied away from issuing a pardon for Joe Arpaio -- a former sheriff in Arizona who was convicted of wilfully violating a court order to stop targeting Hispanics in immigration roundups.
But he gave strong hints that he was preparing a future pardon, saying: "I think he's going to be just fine, okay? I won't do it tonight because I don't want to cause any controversy."
Trump voiced optimism over improvements in relations with North Korea following an escalation in aggressive rhetoric on both sides over Pyongyang's nuclear program.
"I respect the fact that he is starting to respect us. And maybe -- probably not, but maybe -- something positive can come about," Trump said of North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un, though the president repeated his opinion that he had not gone far enough in his condemnation of Kim.
- Fitness questioned -
The freewheeling speech left some critics dumbfounded, with former national intelligence director James Clapper questioning Trump's fitness to lead and his access to the country's nuclear codes.
"I really question his ability to be -- his fitness to be -- in this office, and I also am beginning to wonder about his motivation for it," he told CNN television early Wednesday, adding that he found parts of Trump's rhetoric "downright scary and disturbing."
"In a fit of pique he decides to do something about Kim Jong-Un, there's actually very little to stop him," Clapper said. "The whole system is built to ensure rapid response if necessary. So there's very little in the way of controls over exercising a nuclear option, which is pretty damn scary."
Trump's speech came at the end of a trip to Arizona that the White House hopes will re-energize core supporters who are cooling to his crisis-riddled presidency, and build momentum for a controversial border wall.
The president began his day in Yuma, touring a US Border Patrol operations base, where he met with border agents. He then traveled to Phoenix for the campaign-style rally in the evening, introduced to the crowd by Vice President Mike Pence.
His visit to the Republican state aimed to tout the benefits of a border fence with Mexico, turn up the heat on reluctant allies and demonstrate the president's determination to realize a central campaign pledge.
Trump had insisted that Mexico would pay for the wall, estimated to cost about $22 billion.
Having failed in that bid, he has turned to equally reticent Republicans in Congress to get US funding.
But with his plan running into political quicksand, Trump is trying to generate public pressure on reluctant lawmakers to support him.
In Phoenix, Trump told the rally crowd his message for "obstructionist" Democrats was that he was building the wall "if we have to close down our government."
© 2017 AFP