Trump returns to campaign with underwhelming crowds in speech invoking racist terms and attacks on Biden

·6 min read
Donald Trump speaks at an election rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, with rows of empty seats visible behind him: AP
Donald Trump speaks at an election rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, with rows of empty seats visible behind him: AP

Donald Trump railed against Black Lives Matter protesters in his first rally in three months while addressing questions over his health, in front of rows of empty seats as attendance appeared to fall well short of predictions

A frustrated president returned to the campaign with a number of false claims and racially-divisive demagoguery amid a coronavirus pandemic that he once dismissed, while Covid-19 cases across the US continue to rise and demonstrations against police brutality have persisted for several weeks.

His campaign had anticipated a massive showing for its first rally since 2 March, as the president claimed that nearly 1 million had sought tickets. But the campaign scrapped plans for the president and Mike Pence to address an outdoor following reports of a lower-than-expected crowd outside the BOK Centre in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Earlier this week, when asked about health considerations to postpone the event, the president said the campaign anticipated a "record-setting crowd" in Tulsa.

"We've never had an empty seat, and we certainly won't in Oklahoma," he said.

On Friday, campaign director Brad Parscale touted an outdoor stage that was being built for the president.

"This will be the 1st time that POTUS speaks to BOTH crowds in person - inside & outside," he said on Twitter. "If you come to the rally and don't get into the BOK Center before it's full, you can still see the President in person!"

After the outdoor event was cancelled for lack of numbers, spokesperson Tim Murtaugh claimed in a statement that "protesters interfered with supporters, even blocking access to metal detectors, which prevented people from entering the rally."

"Radical protesters, coupled with a relentless onslaught from the media, attempted to frighten off the president's supporters," he claimed.

One woman who was peacefully protesting while sitting on the ground outside the arena was arrested, after the campaign asked the Tulsa Police Department to remove her from the area. The woman, who was wearing a T-shirt with the phrase "I Can't Breathe", said she had a ticket for the event.

Inside, the arena held a sparse crowd, among his lowest attendances since he first sought the presidency. The campaign texted people who signed up to attend the rally to tell them "there's still space!"

The campaign had initially planned to hold the rally on 19 June, or Juneteenth, but moved the date to the following day after a backlash for using a day recognising African American emancipation from slavery as a backdrop for his return to rallies that have provoked white nationalism.

Tulsa also recently recognised the 99th anniversary of the nation's largest racist massacre, in which white mobs killed dozens of African American residents.

Masks were handed out to attendees, though wearing them was not enforced and most attendees ignored guidelines to do so.

Among attendees, however, were several Senate allies and Nigel Farage, who was exempted by US officials to enter the country under a "national interest" clause, though the president didn't mention him during a roll call of prominent supporters.

While rally attendance doesn't necessarily reflect the campaign's wellbeing, the president – who routinely obsesses over and discusses his public image, including television ratings and poll numbers — arrived onstage with polls showing him trailing his Democratic opponent Joe Biden ahead of November, as support grows for Black Lives Matter and rates of Covid-19 infections surge in reopening states.

Surrounded by empty seats in the upper levels, and a thinner-than-usual crowd on the floor in front of him, the president relied on a 101-minute greatest hits from his previous campaign rally talking points for his pitch for a second term, including attacks on immigration, false claims that have been debunked, and several racial slurs, including one that his own administration had denounced months ago.

He spent nearly 10 minutes defending his awkward appearance at West Point, in which he used two hands to help him raise water to his mouth, and wobbled carefully down a ramp that he claimed was slippery. He continued to claim he ran the last 10 steps, though footage from his appearance shows him slowly walking the entire distance.

The president has discussed the event several times this week after being criticised for his appearance delivering a commencement address at the military academy, prompting some discussion about his health.

At his rally, he said First Lady Melania Trump told him the social media response to his West Point appearance was that he had Parkinson's disease.

He also called the coronavirus "kung flu" — a phrase which his adviser Kellyanne Conway denounced as "highly offensive" back in March when it was rumoured someone at the White House was using it — and suggested that he told his administration to "slow down" testing, though his campaign later said he was joking.

Mr Trump downplayed Covid-19's impact, which has led to the deaths of nearly 120,000 Americans, without offering any idea how his administration plans to survive the pandemic. He said a 10-year-old Covid-19 patient with "sniffles" will "recover in 15 minutes" then criticised health officials for counting that as a case, without acknowledging that that patient could also spread the disease to others.

The president also spent several minutes attacking former vice president Joe Biden, describing him as a "helpless puppet" for the "radical left" while also attacking progressive Democrats like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar and relying on racist tropes to portray an apocalyptic vision of America under Democratic leadership.

The attacks against Ms Omar — in which he said the congresswoman wants to turn the US into Somalia and is telling "us how to run our country" — follow the recent death of her father from coronavirus. Her family fled Somalia as refugees. She is a US citizen.

Referring to proposed Democratic police reform, he depicted a scenario in which "a very tough hombre is breaking into the window of a young woman" who is asleep and "whose husband is away as a travelling salesman".

"You call 911 and they say, 'We're sorry, this number is not working,'" he said.

The rally came as nightly demonstrations against racial injustice, and the Trump administration itself, find their way to the White House, as he defends police use of force against demonstrators amid growing calls for reform. On Friday, he threatened that "any protesters, anarchists, agitators, looters or lowlifes" in Tulsa "will not be treated like you have been in New York, Seattle, or Minneapolis. It will be a much different scene."

He claimed he has "done more for the black community in four years than Joe Biden has done for 47 years."

"Racial justice begins with Joe Biden's retirement," he said.

His defence of the Second Amendment, which has been amplified amid national unrest, and as armed right-wing extremists threaten demonstrations, made several appearances, including telling his supporters that "when you see those lunatics all over the streets, it's damn nice to have arms."

"Our people are not nearly as violent, but if they ever were, it would be a terrible day for the other side," he said. "Because I know our people."

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