By Steve Holland
PHOENIX, Arizona (Reuters) - U.S. President Donald Trump sought to turn nationwide protests to his political advantage in a campaign appearance in the election swing state of Arizona on Tuesday, vowing to prevent "the left-wing mob" from pushing the United States into chaos.
Trump, whose first rally of the coronavirus pandemic on Saturday in Tulsa, Oklahoma, drew fewer supporters than expected and was seen as exposing weaknesses in his campaign, pushed a law-and-order theme in Phoenix before a cheering audience of several-thousand young people.
Trump pointed to demonstrators who tried to topple a statue of 19th-century U.S. President Andrew Jackson near the White House on Monday night, as well as an "autonomous zone" set up by protesters in Seattle, as reasons to keep him in office rather than electing Democrat Joe Biden on Nov. 3.
"It's not the behavior of a peaceful political movement. It's the behavior of totalitarians and dictators and people who don't love our country," he said.
Outside the Dream City church where Trump was speaking, police forcibly dispersed hundreds of protesters marching in an adjacent "free speech zone."
Phoenix police declared the demonstration an unlawful assembly after protesters started blocking a street. Then officers in riot gear used flash-bang grenades - military-style percussion devices for crowd control - to push protesters well away from the church, a Reuters photographer at the scene said.
The city police department said it ordered demonstrators to disperse when the crowd began throwing objects at police, "blocking traffic and moving into an area protected for the presidential motorcade."
In addition to flash-bang devices, police also used "pepper balls deployed into the ground and a burst of pepper spray" against the protesters, the department statement said, adding that no arrests were made.
Trump has been criticized for cozying up to autocratic leaders such as North Korea's Kim Jong Un and Russia's Vladimir Putin. He is also under attack from many Americans for his handling of the protests in response to the death of African American George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis.
On Tuesday, Trump said those protesting against racial injustice and police brutality "hate our history. They hate our values, and they hate everything we prize as Americans."
"We don't bow down to left-wing bullies," he said.
Trump, who narrowly won Arizona in 2016, is seeking to defend his foothold in the state as opinion polls showed Biden leading the Republican president, with Republican U.S. Senator Martha McSally trailing Democratic challenger Mark Kelly.
Earlier, Trump visited a newly built section of the border wall along the frontier with Mexico in San Luis, Arizona, a dusty, barren landscape where the temperature hit 102 degrees Fahrenheit (40 degrees Celsius). Using a black Sharpie pen, he autographed a plaque commemorating the 200th mile of the wall.
A campaign pledge to build a wall along the entire 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexico border helped propel Trump to the White House in 2016.
The trip was Trump's third this year to Arizona, which reported a record increase of more than 3,500 new cases of coronavirus infections on Tuesday. The state also saw record hospitalizations, admissions to intensive care units and numbers of patients on ventilators.
The president and his advisers have largely dismissed concerns about holding campaign events as coronavirus transmissions continue to climb in parts of the country.
Trump told the audience on Tuesday the virus, which originated in China, is known by many names, including "the kung flu," a description that has drawn fire as an ethnic slur.
(Additional reporting by Andrew Hay in Taos, Ash Ponders and David Schwartz in Phoenix and Lisa Shumaker in Chicago; Writing by Jeff Mason and Steve Holland; Editing by Bill Tarrant, Sonya Hepinstall and Lincoln Feast.)