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President Trump defends Charlottesville response at campaign rally in Phoenix

President Donald Trump kicked off his campaign rally Tuesday, defending his responses to the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, and slamming the “damn dishonest” media.

“What happened in Charlottesville strikes at the core of America. And tonight, this entire arena stands united against the thugs who perpetrate hatred and violence,” Trump said, “I strongly condemn neo-Nazis, white Supremacists and the KKK.”

Less than 24 hours after delivering a primetime speech outlining his Afghanistan strategy, Trump is holding a campaign rally in Phoenix, with Vice President Mike Pence and Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson speaking.

In anticipation of Trump’s trip, the political world was buzzing about not just whether the President would set off controversy in Phoenix — but which specific hot-button clash he could wade into.

Could he endorse Kelli Ward or another Republican challenger to Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake, who recently wrote a book decrying Trump’s corrupting influence on the party?

Two Republicans who are openly considering primary campaigns against Flake next year were part of the pre-program at the rally. Jeff DeWit, the Arizona state treasurer, was the MC, tweeting photos of himself with Trump from earlier in the day. And Faith Graham, the 13-year-old daughter of Robert Graham, the former state GOP chairman, led the Pledge of Allegiance.

Notably not part of the program: Kelli Ward, the former state senator who Trump praised on Twitter for running against Flake last week. Ward is expected to be in the crowd but is not speaking and was not a VIP attendee. Still, in a show of support perhaps left over from Ward drawing 39% in a primary against John McCain last year, hundreds — likely thousands — of people standing in line outside the event carried Ward signs or wore Ward stickers.

RELATED: Hundreds brave Phoenix heat to line up early for Trump rally

At least one question — whether Trump would pardon Joe Arpaio, the controversial former Arizona sheriff who was convicted of contempt by a federal judge last month — appeared to be answered before Trump touched down in the Grand Canyon state.

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders asked on Air Force One said no news would be made Tuesday on a would-be Arpaio pardon.

“I can tell you that there will be no discussion of that today at any point and no action will be taken on that front at any time today,” Sanders said.

Trump’s arrival at the Phoenix Convention Center will be greeted by mass protests from progressive and anti-bigotry groups.

Democrats in Arizona, including Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton, are lambasting Trump for even visiting the state — particularly for a campaign rally.

Trump’s unpredictable and bombastic style “makes us worry that he will come here and make things worse, not better,” said Rep. Ruben Gallego, an Arizona Democrat.

“President Trump does not know how to be a unifier — does not know how to ease the pain of this country like we saw George Bush do after 9/11,” Gallego said Monday.

Jevin Hodge, the vice chairman of the Arizona Democratic Party, said Trump’s “racially inflamed rhetoric is not welcome here in Arizona and is not what this country needs at this time.”

First stop: Yuma

Trump’s day in Arizona started near the border, where he viewed equipment used by US Customs and Border Patrol agents to track illegal crossings.

Trump’s aides planned for him to visit the US-Mexico border as part of his visit Tuesday to Yuma, but were forced to scrap the visit because of security concerns, according to a person familiar with the situation.

According to background provided by the White House on Monday evening, Trump was slated to visit the San Luis II commercial crossing, about 20 miles south of Yuma.

But when he stopped in Yuma on Tuesday, he did not leave the grounds of the Marine base where he landed. The person did not specify the nature of the threat.

Asked for comment, the White House referred to the Secret Service.

“The Secret Service does not comment on its protective operations,” said Cathy Milhoan, a Secret Service spokeswoman.

The administration has praised the Yuma border patrol sector for the miles of secure fencing, constructed over the past decade, which they say has curtailed the flow of undocumented immigrants crossing the border illegally.

Those commitments were made during previous administrations, however, and previous presidents have claimed credit. George W. Bush toured the border near Yuma during his second term, riding a dune buggy along the fencing and heralding funds he approved to build it.

The immigration issue has been a touchstone of Trump’s throughout his campaign and the early days of his administration, centered on his promise to construct a wall along the US-Mexico border.

The project has seen setbacks, including an acknowledgment that Mexico will not — at least for now — pay for the wall’s construction, as Trump has repeatedly promised. Instead, Congress has approved some funding for the measure, which Trump insists will be repaid.

On Tuesday, administration officials sought to underscore Trump’s tough-on-immigration stance, attributing a drop in border apprehensions to his actions and rhetoric over the first six months of his tenure.

Allies and enemies in the area

While Trump allies are likely to be on hand at the Phoenix rally, some of Arizona’s top Republicans — including Flake and Sen. John McCain, who is undergoing cancer treatment — will not be there Tuesday night.

Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey, a Republican who is up for re-election in 2018, will greet Trump on the tarmac when he lands Tuesday afternoon but will not attend the rally, his office said.

“Gov. Ducey’s focus has been working with law enforcement toward a safe event in downtown Phoenix for all those involved and in the area. That will continue to be his priority during the event and afterwards,” Ducey spokesman Daniel Scarpinato told The Arizona Republic.

Flake — who took on Trump in a new book, “Conscience of a Conservative” — wouldn’t respond Monday morning after an East Valley Chambers of Commerce breakfast to questions about Trump’s tweet last week that Flake is “a non-factor in the Senate” and “toxic!”

“I don’t worry about it at all,” Flake said.