Trump wanted big crowds at his comeback rally in Tulsa. They didn't show up
President Donald Trump speaks during a rally at the BOK Center on Saturday, June 20, 2020, in Tulsa, Okla. (AP Photo / Evan Vucci) (ASSOCIATED PRESS)
President Trump's first rally in months, full of grievances and racist statements, failed to attract the large crowd expected by the President and emptied the supposedly triumphant return to the campaign after the coronavirus forced nationwide bans.
Although some hardcore fans stayed at the camp for days, there were empty seats on the upper decks of Tulsa's arena in the city center when Trump took the stage. This was a heavy blow to a president who relies on a loyal audience to improve his dwindling re-election chances.
He called the crowd "warriors" because they opposed the "wrong news" to attend his rally and dispelled concerns that gathering thousands of people could help spread the corona virus that has already killed 120,000 Americans.
Trump had no sympathy for those who had lost friends and family to the virus and instead complained that extensive testing made the pandemic worse.
"I said to my people, 'Please slow down the tests,'" he said in a seemingly conspicuous admission that he gave politics priority over closely monitoring the spread of the virus. A White House official later said the president "clearly spoke in jest."
Despite the protests against racism and police brutality that have swept across the nation in recent weeks, the President barely referred to the questions raised by protesters. Trump, however, laced his speech with racist comments and once called the Chinese corona virus the "kung flu".
At another point, the president warned that left-wing demands for law enforcement cuts would appear short-sighted if "a very tough Hombre broke into the window of a young woman whose husband was gone."
Trump and his campaign have been trumpeting speech as a major event for weeks, boasting at one point that 1 million tickets had been requested.
But Trump not only spoke with a partially empty arena, but also had to cancel an outdoor event that was supposed to serve a crowded crowd of thousands. Instead, there were only a few dozen, and the workers began dismantling the expensive stage around the time the president landed in Tulsa.
Campaign spokesman Tim Murtaugh claimed that "demonstrators bothered supporters and even blocked access to the metal detectors." However, the local police said the entrance was only temporarily blocked and no one was denied entry.
The anemic turnout in deep red Oklahoma could be a red flag for Trump's re-election campaign, which is almost double-digit behind Joe Biden, the alleged democratic candidate.
Ed Rollins, a seasoned Republican strategist who runs a Super PAC that supports Trump's reelection, said it was a bad idea for the campaign to hold a rally where the coronavirus is still spreading unchecked. The campaign's failure to meet its own expectations is a worrying sign of its competence, he added.
"Every time you put on a show and make bad press out of it, that's not a good strategy," said Rollins. "The bottom line is that you have to get to know your audience, and the reality is that I am certainly not convinced that they count well."
In addition to the embarrassment, the Trump campaign on Saturday reported that six employees who helped prepare its rally had tested positive for the corona virus.
The President's speech was often aimless, from the decision to order replacement Air Force One aircraft to the claim that he had improved veteran medical care, boasting of having appointed hundreds of federal judges.
At some point, Trump responded to a long explanation of why he had carefully left the stage after speaking at a graduation ceremony in West Point. A video of his walk and a clip of him apparently having trouble drinking a glass of water had raised concerns about his health.
At his rally, Trump complained that he was wearing "leather shoes" that "are not good for ramps", especially a "really steep ramp" that is as slippery as an "ice rink". Then, theatrically, he took a sip of water and tossed the glass aside to cheer the crowd that sang "four more years".
One person involved in the re-election called the speech a "catastrophe".
"Our country is on fire, the people are unemployed and scared and he speaks about ramps and water !!!!" The person wrote in a text message.
Trump seemed to notice that he was having trouble and paused during the rally to give himself an assessment - "I'm average until tonight."
He eventually focused his statements on Biden, his likely opponent in the general election, and called him "completely controlled by his party."
"Biden is a very willing Trojan horse for socialism," said Trump.
In some corners of Tulsa there was relief that no more people showed up, especially with the fear of possible violence between demonstrators and Trump supporters outside the arena.
Meeting and protest sites in Tulsa. (Los Angeles times)
A few fights broke out - mostly shouting, but occasionally a few fists were thrown. The police repeatedly separated people who spared each other. But the protests nearby ended peacefully.
When the rally ended and Trump's caravan drove off, hundreds of Black Lives Matter demonstrators marched through the streets around the arena. Police fired pepper bullets - less deadly rounds that contain chemical irritants. It was not immediately clear whether someone was injured.
Many feared that Trump's rally in recent nationwide protests against the murder of a white Minneapolis policeman by George Floyd, an unarmed black man, could spark racial tensions.
Tulsa was the scene of a racial massacre in 1921, and leaders of the black community have described Trump's visit as an insensitive provocation, especially because it takes place on the weekend of June 19, an annual commemoration of the end of slavery.
Across the arena, in the historic Black Greenwood neighborhood, where the massacre took place in 1921, activists reported on monuments and murals before Vice President Mike Pence, who didn't show up, came to visit.
"We don't want him to use our monuments for a photo op," said Tyrance Billingsley III, 24, a local entrepreneur. He said the Trump administration was not welcome and was "100% diametrically opposed to what Greenwood stands for."
Public health officials called on Trump to cancel his rally, fearing that a crowded arena would accelerate the spread of the virus, especially as many of Trump's followers downplayed the pandemic threat and refused to wear masks.
Some Trump supporters said on Saturday they were concerned about COVID-19 and were bringing masks, which were also sold outside the rally, as well as face protection and hand sanitizers. But most said they didn't want to wear masks unless they needed to.
"It was important to support what I believe in. I'm not going to let a few people tell me I can't do something. We're still in a free country," said Janet Arnold, 64, a massage therapist, who drove from Bolivar, Missouri, to the rally and described herself as a "grandma with gun violence".
Oklahoma was one of the first states to reopen in April and has remained open, although COVID-19 cases have increased dramatically in the past few weeks.
Trump returned after a cascade of setbacks to the campaign, including Supreme Court rulings that overturned his government's policies, and the upcoming publication of a searing book by John Bolton, his former national security advisor. The president sparked new controversy this weekend when he replaced Geoffrey Berman, the United States' attorney for the southern district of New York, who had launched an investigation into Trump's allies.
Coronavirus cases are increasing in many parts of the country, increasing the prospect of a renewed increase in deaths and a return to the types of locks that have forced tens of millions of people out of work.
As part of the President's campaign, attendees signed a waiver promising not to sue if they became ill from the event.
The Times authors, Michael Finnegan in Los Angeles and Eli Stokols in Washington, contributed to this report.
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