Trump wanted big crowds at his comeback rally in Tulsa. They didn’t show up
President Trump’s first rally in months, full of grievances and racist remarks, failed to draw the huge crowds the president anticipated, deflating what was supposed to be a triumphant return to the campaign trail after the coronavirus forced nationwide lockdowns.
Although some hardcore supporters camped out for days, there were empty seats throughout the upper decks of Tulsa’s downtown arena when Trump took the stage, a sharp blow to a president who is counting on faithful audiences to buoy his sagging reelection chances.
He called the crowd “warriors” for defying the “fake news” to attend his rally, brushing off concerns that gathering thousands of people could help spread the coronavirus, which has already killed 120,000 Americans.
Trump had no message of sympathy for those who lost friends and family to the virus, complaining instead that extensive testing was making the pandemic look worse.
“I said to my people, ‘Slow the testing down, please,’” he said, in what appeared to be a striking admission that he’s prioritized politics over accurately tracking the spread of the virus. A White House official said later the president “was clearly speaking in jest.”
Despite the protests against racism and police brutality that have swept the nation in recent weeks, the president made scant reference to the issues raised by demonstrators. Trump did, however, lace his speech with racist comments, at one point calling the coronavirus, which originated in China, the “kung flu.”
At another point, the president warned that left-wing calls for cutting law enforcement would appear shortsighted when “a very tough hombre is breaking into the window of a young woman whose husband is away.”
Trump and his campaign had been trumpeting the speech as a major event for weeks, boasting at one point that 1 million tickets had been requested.
But in addition to speaking to a partially empty arena, Trump had to cancel an outdoor event that was supposed to cater to an overflow crowd of thousands. Instead, there were only a few dozen, and workers began dismantling the expensive stage around the time the president landed in Tulsa.
Tim Murtaugh, a campaign spokesman, claimed that “protesters interfered with supporters, even blocking access to the metal detectors.” But police on site said the entrance was blocked only briefly and no one was denied entry.
The anemic turnout in the deep-red state of Oklahoma may be a red flag for Trump’s reelection campaign, which is trailing by nearly double digits to Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee.
When Donald Trump entered politics, some suggested his real ambition was to create a Trump News Network to compete with CNN and Fox. Now his reelection campaign has created an online channel with family members and friends as hosts and guests.
Ed Rollins, a veteran Republican strategist who leads a super PAC that backs Trump’s reelection, said it was a bad idea for the campaign to stage a rally with the coronavirus still spreading unchecked. The campaign’s failure to meet its own crowd expectations was a worrisome sign about its competence, he added.
“Any time you put on a show and you get bad press out of it, that’s not a good strategy,” Rollins said. “The bottom line is you’ve got to know your audience, and the reality is it certainly doesn’t convince me they’re counting well.”
Adding to the embarrassment, the Trump campaign reported on Saturday that six staff members helping set up for his rally had tested positive for the coronavirus.
The president’s speech was often aimless, ricocheting from his decision to order replacement planes for Air Force One to claiming he’s improved medical care for veterans to boasting about appointing hundreds of federal judges.
At one point, Trump diverged onto a lengthy explanation of why he had walked gingerly off the stage after speaking at a West Point graduation ceremony. A video of his walk, along with a clip of him apparently struggling to sip a glass of water, had raised concerns about his health.
At his rally, Trump complained that he was wearing “leather bottom shoes” that are “not good for ramps,” especially a “really steep ramp” that was as slippery as an “ice skating rink.” He then theatrically took a sip of water, tossing the glass aside to cheers from the crowd, which chanted “four more years.”
A black-owned Oklahoma newspaper would not let the state forget the day white mobs murdered hundreds of African Americans in Tulsa.
A person involved with the reelection effort called the speech a “disaster.”
“Our country is on fire, people are out of work and scared and he’s talking about ramps and water!!!!” the person wrote in a text message.
Trump seemed to realize he was struggling, pausing partway through the rally to give himself a self-assessment — “so far tonight, I’m average.”
He eventually focused his remarks on Biden, his likely general election opponent, calling him “fully controlled by the fringe of his party.”
“Biden is a very willing Trojan horse to socialism,” Trump said.
There was relief in some corners of Tulsa that more people didn’t show up, especially with fears of potential violence between protesters and Trump supporters outside the arena.
A few fights broke out — mostly shouting, but occasionally a few fists were thrown. Police repeatedly separated people sparring with each other. But nearby protests ended peacefully.
Once the rally ended and Trump’s motorcade departed, hundreds of Black Lives Matter demonstrators marched through the streets around the arena. Police fired pepper balls — less lethal rounds that contain chemical irritants. It was not immediately clear if anyone was injured.
Many had feared that Trump risked inflaming racial tensions with his rally during nationwide protests over the killing last month by a white Minneapolis police officer of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man.
Tulsa was the site of a race massacre in 1921, and Black community leaders have called Trump’s visit an insensitive provocation, especially because it falls on the weekend of Juneteenth, an annual commemoration of the end of slavery.
Across town from the arena, in the historically Black Greenwood district, the site of the 1921 massacre, activists covered memorials and murals ahead of an expected visit by Vice President Mike Pence, who didn’t show up.
“We don’t want him using our monuments for a photo op,” said Tyrance Billingsley III, 24, a local entrepreneur. He said the Trump administration was not welcome and is “100% diametrically opposed to what Greenwood stands for.”
Powerful U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Berman fought removal from his post, where he was overseeing an investigation into Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani.
Public health officials urged Trump to cancel his rally, fearing that a tightly packed arena would supercharge the spread of the virus, especially with many of Trump’s supporters downplaying the threat of the pandemic and declining to wear masks.
Some Trump supporters said Saturday they were worried about COVID-19 and brought masks, which were also being sold outside the rally, along with face shields and hand sanitizer. But most said they did not intend to wear masks inside unless it was required.
“It was important to me to support what I believe in. I’m not going to let a bunch of people tell me I can’t do something. We’re still in a free country,” said Janet Arnold, 64, a massage therapist who drove to the rally from Bolivar, Mo., and described herself as “a gun-toting grandma.”
Oklahoma was among the first states to reopen in April and has remained open even as COVID-19 cases have increased dramatically in recent weeks.
Trump returned to the campaign trail after a cascade of setbacks, including Supreme Court decisions overturning his administration’s policies and the pending release of a searing book by John Bolton, his former national security advisor. The president stirred new controversy this weekend as he forced out Geoffrey Berman, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York who has led investigations of Trump’s allies.
Coronavirus cases are also rising again in many parts of the country, raising the prospect of another surge in deaths and a return to the kinds of lockdowns that have forced tens of millions out of work.
The president’s campaign had attendees sign a waiver pledging not to sue if they get sick from the event.
Times staff writers Michael Finnegan in Los Angeles and Eli Stokols in Washington contributed to this report.
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