Tense scene as Trump supporters meet protesters in Arizona

Hunter Walker
White House Correspondent
Jarvis Johnson and Bikers for Trump founder Chris Cox argue outside of President Trump’s rally in Phoenix, Aug. 22, 2017. (Photo: Hunter Walker/Yahoo News)

PHOENIX — Temperatures and tempers ran hot as President Trump prepared to hold a rally at the Phoenix Convention Center on Tuesday evening. Crowds of Trump supporters and protesters feuded in the triple-digit heat outside the event, while many wondered whether the president would launch an attack on his critics inside the Republican Party.

Police attempted to keep Trump’s fans away from the protesters, many of whom carried signs that criticized the president’s response to the violence in Charlottesville, Va., earlier this month. The dueling crowds did taunt each other across fences and, at times, the lines were crossed. At one point, a group of protesters carrying a sign that declared “F*** Trump” and one that blended the presidential “45” with a Nazi swastika walked alongside the long line of the president’s supporters. The anti-Trump contingent drew an angry response from the president’s supporters, who stretched in long lines around the building that reportedly included some Trump fans who waited outside since Monday night.

 “Get back on the other side!” shouted one of the Trump supporters.

“Get a job!” yelled another.

The Trump supporters cheered as a loud roar of motorcycles erupted from a nearby street.

“That’s Bikers for Trump!” one said, referencing a group of motorcyclists that formed during last year’s election to provide security for pro-Trump events.

Many of the protesters in Phoenix chanted “No Trump! No KKK! No fascist USA!” Some also carried photos of Heather Heyer, a young woman who was killed at a right wing rally in Charlottesville when a neo-Nazi sympathizer drove his car into a crowd of protesters. Two police officers were also killed after their helicopter crashed as they attempted to respond to clashes between the right-wing rallygoers and protesters.

Slideshow: Trump rally in Phoenix draws protesters from both sides >>>

Trump was widely criticized for his responses to the chaos in Charlottesville as he blamed “both sides” for the violence rather than focusing on the white supremacists who came to the rally. The president also empathized with the rally attendees concern about the removal of Confederate monuments.

The crowds outside Trump’s Phoenix rally also included several groups taking advantage of Arizona’s “open carry” laws and brandishing rifles. One group of camouflage-clad men armed with assault rifles repeatedly said “no comment” as Yahoo News asked them why they came to the rally. Another group with guns and camp had signs identifying them as the John Brown Gun Club. One of the members offered a quick explanation of their presence.

“We’re a community defense organization, so we’re here to provide security and make sure nobody is attacked by white nationalists or fascists,” the man said before walking away.

Trump supporters and protesters face off near the Phoenix Convention Center as the president holds a rally inside, Aug. 22, 2017. (Photo: Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call via Getty Images)

In addition to the tensions in the streets, Trump’s rally in the Arizona capital highlighted drama inside the GOP. The state’s two U.S. senators, Jeff Flake and John McCain, have been some of Trump’s harshest Republican critics in Washington. Flake is currently up for reelection and Trump has attacked Flake while praising his opponent, Kelli Ward. Ahead of Trump’s Phoenix event, speculation swirled about whether he would fire further shots at Flake or offer Ward an endorsement from the stage. However, Ward was not granted a spot inside the rally with invited VIPs. Ahead of the event, she walked along the lines of Trump supporters outside, many of whom carried her signs and stickers. Ward told Yahoo News she was “excited” to “welcome President Trump to Phoenix.”

“I’m here for the real VIPs. The real VIPs are right here [outside], the voters of Arizona,” Ward said when Yahoo asked if she was concerned about not receiving a special invitation to the event.

Ward wasn’t sure if Trump would attack Flake from the stage, but she seemed hopeful.

Trump supporters face off with peace activists during protests outside a Trump rally in Phoenix, Aug. 22, 2017. (Photo: Sandy Huffaker/Reuters)

“There certainly are all kinds of reasons for why Donald Trump doesn’t agree with Senator Flake. He’s got bad policies, bad on the border, bad on crime, and he’s also a non-entity in the U.S. Senate,” said Ward.

Some of Trump’s fans at the event were less eager to see him take on Republican rivals.

Sean Lewis, a plumber from Phoenix, said he was at the rally because he voted for Trump and “it’s time people get behind him and start supporting the president of the United States.” While Lewis said Republicans in Congress “need to get behind [Trump] too,” he wasn’t fully on board with the president’s attacks on McCain. Lewis called Trump’s comment criticizing McCain for getting captured in Vietnam “disgusting.”

“The one thing I will say I don’t like about Trump is what he said about McCain,” explained Lewis.

Eric Schaefer, a Phoenix resident who owns a granite countertop company, seemed eager to take on one of Trump’s favorite targets — the press. As he waited in line, Lewis began shouting at Yahoo News as we photographed a protester with a sign that said “No racism.”

“Crooked media!” yelled Schaefer.

Schaefer said he feels Trump’s presidency is “going great except for the crooked media.” He predicted the media would cover the protests rather than the “average American people” who showed up to support the president. Though he said the protesters had “a right” to express themselves, Lewis argued it was inappropriate for them to carry signs comparing Trump to Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan.

A protester wears a costume likeness of Sheriff Joe Arpaio as a member of the KKK with a caricature of President Trump outside the Phoenix Convention Center, Aug. 22, 2017, in Phoenix. (Photo: David McNew/Getty Images)

“I don’t see any people in here with hatred signs toward racism and bigots and neo-Nazis,” he said of the Trump supporters.

Schaefer also had harsh words for the Republicans in Washington who have criticized Trump.

“We voted them in to stand up with the president,” Schaefer declared, adding, “All these people are turncoats.”

Nevertheless, Schaefer indicated he didn’t want to see Trump use the rally to attack Flake or McCain, who he called “the biggest turncoat there ever was.”

“I don’t think he should be talking stuff about people in his own party. I think he should just lay low and do what he needs to do,” Schaefer said of Trump.

Outside the rally, the crowds appeared ready for far more direct confrontations. Though police tried to keep opposing groups apart, Chris Cox, the imposing founder of Bikers For Trump, walked right through the middle of the protests. As Cox passed, protesters followed him shouting “shame!” and “racist!” An African-American man named Jarvis Johnson stood in front of Cox.

Protesters outside the Phoenix Convention Center, Aug. 22, 2017. (Photos: Matt York/AP)

“I ain’t scared of you! You need to be over there!” Johnson said to the biker.

“You’re a big boy. You’re a big boy,” Cox replied to the far shorter man. “I’ll be wherever I want.”

“Well you shouldn’t be over here!” Johnson screamed.

After the pair separated, Cox said his experience showed the “attitude of the left.”

“I got dropped off on my Uber down here. I’m going to walk through here on my way to the event,” Cox said of the protest. “I’m not going to go around it. I got every right to be here.”

Johnson accused Cox of trying to ramp up the tensions.

“He shouldn’t be over here. He’s over here to antagonize us,” said Johnson. “We won’t have it. We won’t take it no more.”

While he blamed Cox for being provocative, Johnson said he wasn’t bothered by the biker’s use of the term “boy,” which is widely considered a racial epithet.

“He can say what he wants to say. That don’t bother me. I don’t let the small stuff sweat me,” Johnson said of Cox. “He was asking me … am I scared of him. I ain’t scared of nobody out here.”

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