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Trump Returns To Washington, Seeking New Afghanistan Policy And Overall Reset

President Trump and first lady Melania Trump walk across the tarmac before boarding Air Force One at Morristown Municipal Airport Sunday to return to Washington.
Pablo Martinez Monsivais

Updated at 11:27 am ET

President Trump is set to deliver a prime-time address to the nation on Afghanistan Monday night. The speech marks a dramatic return for the president after his none-too-restful "working vacation."

The getaway was marked by another staff shakeup and controversy over Trump's remarks on the deadly white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va.

"Heading back to Washington after working hard and watching some of the worst and most dishonest Fake News reporting I have ever seen," Trump tweeted last night, before returning to the White House from his vacation home in Bedminister, N.J.

He comes back to a West Wing that has undergone substantial renovation during his absence, including installation of a new cooling and ventilation system. But it may take more than cosmetic touch-ups to lower Trump's temperature. The president spent much of his time away from Washington fuming, as his approval rating continued to hover below 40 percent.

The office formerly occupied by Trump's chief strategist, Steve Bannon, has been vacated. Bannon left the the White House Friday by what a spokeswoman called mutual agreement with Trump's new chief of staff, John Kelly.

The populist architect of Trump's election victory quickly returned to his old job as executive chairman of Breitbart News, a post he could use to antagonize his former colleagues. The president may have expressed some wishful thinking over the weekend when he tweeted, "Steve Bannon will be a tough and smart new voice at @Bretibart News...maybe even better than ever before. Fake News needs the competition."

Trump also tweeted about the mostly peaceful "free speech" rally in Boston over the weekend at which a few dozen far-right protesters were vastly outnumbered by counter-demonstrators.

"I want to applaud the many protesters in Boston who are speaking out against bigotry and hate," Trump wrote. "Our country will soon come together as one."

It was a far cry from his remarks on the deadly Charlottesville rally a week earlier, in which Trump seemed to draw a parallel between white supremacists and those he called the "alt-left," adding that there were "very fine people," as well as troublemakers, on "both sides."

In the fallout from Trump's Charlottesville comments, corporate business leaders bolted from White House advisory boards. And Trump faced mounting criticism from Republican lawmakers.

Monday night's speech on Afghanistan gives the president an opportunity to change the subject. He's been weighing a variety of options to address what's been called a "stalemate" in the war. Trump met Friday at Camp David with his national security team and said afterward that a decision had been reached.

Defense Secretary James Mattis and others have said the president's strategy will address not only Afghanistan but the surrounding region as well. A persistent challenge for U.S. forces in the area is that Taliban fighters and other enemies often find safe haven in neighboring Pakistan.

The president is set to deliver his address from Fort Myer, just outside Washington in Arlington, Va. Later this week, Trump is expected to address a veterans' convention in Reno, Nev.

In between, the president is holding a campaign rally in Phoenix Tuesday, despite the objection of that city's Democratic mayor.

"I am disappointed that President Trump has chosen to hold a campaign rally as our nation is still healing from the tragic events in Charlottesville," Mayor Greg Stanton said in a statement last week.

The mayor also expressed concern that Trump might use the Phoenix rally as a venue to announce a pardon for former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio.

The once-popular sheriff faces up to six months in jail for ignoring a court order to halt local immigration patrols. A judge had ruled those patrols amounted to illegal racial profiling against Latinos.

Arpaio was an early supporter of Trump's and the president told Fox News he's considering granting a pardon. Stanton warned it would be a mistake for the president to do so while in Phoenix.

"It will be clear his true intent is to enflame emotions and further divide our nation," Stanton said.

Trump has also been feuding publicly with Arizona Senator Jeff Flake. Flake is one of several Republican lawmakers Trump has openly criticized in recent weeks—a move that is not likely to grease the wheels of the president's legislative agenda. This fall, Congress needs to pass a budget, raise the federal debt ceiling, and vote to keep the government's lights on before lawmakers can turn in earnest to Trump's much-desired tax cuts.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Scott Horsley is NPR's Chief Economics Correspondent. He reports on ups and downs in the national economy as well as fault lines between booming and busting communities.
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