Trump back in rally form in Tulsa, but the promised crowd doesn't show

President Trump’s reelection campaign got off to a rocky start Saturday, with a rally in Tulsa, Okla., that drew a much smaller crowd than his campaign had planned for.

“We begin, we begin our campaign!” Trump said exuberantly as he took the stage at Bank of Oklahoma Center before a crowd that fell far short of filling the 19,000-seat arena.

Trump quickly blamed the “fake news” for discouraging turnout and said “we had some very bad people outside, they were doing some very bad things,” intimating that his supporters had been prevented from entering the arena.

The president then assured those in attendance that “the silent majority is stronger than ever before.”

Settling into a version of the stump speech that he had delivered many times until he suspended campaigns in March as the coronavirus pandemic swept across America, Trump hit all of his familiar themes: his trade deals with China, rebuilding the military, his appointment of hundreds of conservative judges, and told a long anecdote about how much money he saved on the purchase of a new airplane to replace Air Force One.

Missing from his repertoire was his baiting the camera crews to pan the arena and show the size and enthusiasm of the crowd and thanking the fire marshals for letting him exceed the nominal capacity of the auditorium.

Trump mentioned what he termed “the Chinese virus” nearly 10 minutes into his remarks and gave himself high marks for his response to it, emphasizing the steps he took to shore up the price of oil. “It looked like we were in big trouble, and I got it together,” Trump said, adding that he had called the leaders of Russia and Saudi Arabia and “got our energy back to almost $40 a barrel."

Trump told his crowd that “I have done a phenomenal job” with the pandemic, pointing to the number of COVID-19 tests administered in the U.S. to date. But he also complained that more testing had revealed more cases of the disease caused by coronavirus.

“When you do testing to that extent, you’re going to find more people, you’re going to find more cases. So I said to my people, ‘Slow the testing down, please.’ They test and they test,” Trump said.

He then imitated a public health official examining a patient, “If you have the sniffles, it’s a case!”

TULSA, OKLAHOMA - JUNE 20: U.S. President Donald Trump arrives at  a campaign rally at the BOK Center, June 20, 2020 in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Trump is holding his first political rally since the start of the coronavirus pandemic at the BOK Center today while infection rates in the state of Oklahoma continue to rise. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
President Trump speaks in Tulsa, Okla., on Saturday. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Turning to the Black Lives Matter protests that have erupted since the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, Trump derided the demonstrators as “anarchists” and accused the media of hypocrisy for expressing concern over the health risks presented by his rallies but not the protests.

Health experts have warned that the virus spreads most easily in crowded indoor spaces.

On defense after weeks of falling poll numbers and a blizzard of negative media coverage, Trump spent more than 10 minutes attempting to explain why he had trouble descending a ramp following a graduation speech at West Point Military Academy. “It was like an ice skating rink,” Trump said of the ramp, adding that the leather soles of his dress shoes were slippery.

“I can’t fall with the fake news watching,” Trump said he told a general who helped guide him down the ramp.

Trump also addressed scrutiny of his difficulty bringing a bottle of water to his lips during the West Point speech, explaining that he had saluted so many of the cadets that his arm was tired.

“I don’t want to get water on the tie,” Trump added, the recounting of the ramp and the water bottle eating up more than 10 minutes of his speech.

Trump derided stories written that speculated he may suffer from Parkinson’s disease, but then quickly added that Joe Biden, his Democratic rival in the general election, wasn’t healthy or sharp enough for the job.

TULSA, OKLAHOMA - JUNE 20: A supporter sits in the upper seats during a campaign rally for U.S. President Donald Trump at the BOK Center, June 20, 2020 in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Trump is holding his first political rally since the start of the coronavirus pandemic at the BOK Center on Saturday while infection rates in the state of Oklahoma continue to rise. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
A supporter sits alone in the upper seats during President Trump’s rally in Tulsa, Okla. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Focusing his updated stump speech on Biden, who secured the Democratic presidential nomination since Trump held his last rally in March, Trump portrayed the former vice president as a “puppet” for the left wing of his party. The president also turned criticism of his own views on race into an attack on his rival.

“Joe Biden is a shameless hypocrite,” Trump said, for eulogizing past Senate colleagues who were supporters of segregation, adding, “America should not take lectures on racial justice from Joe Biden — sleepy Joe.”

But the president’s first big reelection rally since the coronavirus put an end to large public gatherings in America did not live up to the expectations his campaign had set for it in the weeks leading up to the event.

First, the Tulsa rally was originally scheduled for Friday, which is Juneteenth, the holiday that commemorates the end of slavery in America. With Black Lives Matter protests raging across the country over the killing of African-American George Floyd by Minneapolis police, that date immediately sparked an outcry that led Trump to push the rally back a day “out of respect for this Holiday.”

TULSA, OKLAHOMA - JUNE 20: Supporters listen as U.S. President Donald Trump speaksat  a campaign rally at the BOK Center, June 20, 2020 in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Trump is holding his first political rally since the start of the coronavirus pandemic at the BOK Center today while infection rates in the state of Oklahoma continue to rise. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
Supporters listen as President Trump speaks at a campaign rally at the BOK Center in Tulsa, Okla., Saturday. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Further adding to the public relations debacle, Trump bragged in a Thursday interview with the Wall Street Journal that he had “made Juneteenth very famous” by originally selecting June 19 as the date for his rally.

Despite warnings from public health officials that large indoor gatherings during the coronavirus pandemic greatly increased the risks of transmission of COVID-19, the campaign pressed ahead with its plan to hold the rally on Saturday.

Trump’s campaign manager Brad Parscale tweeted that the campaign had received more than 1 million requests for tickets, even though those who said they wanted to attend the rally were forced to sign an electronic liability waiver acknowledging the risks of catching COVID-19.

During the past week, Trump staffers were reported to be hopeful that a large rally would help lift the president’s spirits after weeks of declining poll numbers and economic turmoil resulting from the pandemic.

But with just an hour remaining before the start of the event, it became clear that the crowd was nowhere near filling the 19,000-capacity BOK Arena. There were empty seats in the stands and just a fraction of floorspace was filled as Kimberly Guilfoyle, Diamond & Silk and Lara and Eric Trump began speaking. An outside space meant to hold an overflow crowd of tens of thousands of spectators was deserted, and the appearance of Trump and Vice President Mike Pence outside was canceled.

While those who did attend the rally (most of them not wearing masks) expressed their enthusiasm for the president’s message, there was no disguising the large swath of empty seats in the upper tier for what Trump’s team had billed as the kickoff to the general election campaign. Less than half-full, the rally could not be spun as anything other than a disappointment for the president — although the campaign tried.

The director of communications for the campaign, Tim Murtagh, blamed “protesters” who blocked access to the metal detectors outside the arena.

Parscale himself echoed that explanation for the tepid turnout, though there was no real sign in Tulsa of the missing attendees the campaign had anticipated.

Whether protesters, health concerns or a lack of enthusiasm kept Trump’s supporters from turning out in large numbers on Saturday, the spectacle of empty seats and an outdoor stage being dismantled as the rally began left viewers across the country with very different images than the campaign had hoped for. They were also unlikely to please the man the rally was meant to bolster.


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