TULSA, Okla. — President Trump’s attempt to revive his reelection campaign sputtered badly Saturday night as he traveled to Tulsa for his first mass rally in months and found a far smaller crowd than his aides had promised him, then delivered a disjointed speech that did not reckon with the multiple crises facing the nation or scandals battering him in Washington.
Visiting a 2016 electoral stronghold, Trump had hoped to declare a “great American comeback” before a jam-packed arena like he repeatedly had during his first presidential campaign. Instead, the event only raised questions about his drawing power and political skills at a time when his poll numbers are falling and allies are worried about his electoral prospects for a second term.
While the president’s campaign had claimed that more than 1 million people had sought tickets to attend the rally, the 19,000-seat BOK Center was still half empty by the time Trump landed in Tulsa. A second, outdoor venue where Trump was set to declare a “great American comeback” was so sparsely attended that he and Vice President Mike Pence both canceled appearances there.
Tim Murtaugh, a spokesman for the Trump campaign, falsely blamed the small numbers on “radical protesters” and the news media who he said frightened away supporters. But there were few protests in the area, a strong security presence, and no one blocking entrances.
The disappointing turnout came as Trump already found himself under siege about his sudden firing of the US attorney in Manhattan and his losing legal battle over the release of a memoir full of damaging revelations by John Bolton, his former national security adviser. And in Tulsa, Trump faced criticism for ignoring pleas from officials about health risks to rallygoers and restarting his “Make America Great Again!” rallies in a city where a white mob massacred hundreds of Black residents 99 years ago.
In rambling, grievance-filled remarks, Trump made no reference to George Floyd, whose death at the hands of a white police officer in Minneapolis sparked global demands for racial justice. Instead, he railed about “left-wing radicals” who he falsely claimed were rioting in cities across the country.
“The unhinged left-wing mob is trying to vandalize our history, desecrate our monuments, our beautiful monuments, tear down our statues and punish, cancel and persecute anyone who does not conform to their demands for absolute and total control,” Trump said. He was referring in part to attempts to remove Confederate monuments, efforts that have support in both parties.
The president once again shrugged off the threat from the coronavirus, at one point calling it the “Chinese virus” and the “Kung Flu.” He bragged that he had done “a phenomenal job” fighting the pandemic but admitted that increased testing for the virus revealed more cases of infection that he felt made the country look bad.
“So I said to my people, ‘slow the testing down,’” he said.
Many of the thousands of Trump supporters at the rally did not wear masks or stand 6 feet apart — health precautions that Trump himself has ignored.
The campaign conducted temperature checks and handed out masks, yet health experts remained concerned that the event could be a dangerous incubator for the virus, spreading through the building’s recirculated air.
It was unclear whether fears about the virus kept Trump supporters away despite the president’s repeated efforts to dismiss the need for social distancing and other precautions.
A few hours before the event, the campaign disclosed that six Trump campaign staff members who had been working on the rally had tested positive for the coronavirus during a routine screening. Two members of the Secret Service in Tulsa also tested positive for the virus, according to people familiar with the matter. Trump, who was made aware of the sick campaign aides before departing for the rally, was incensed that the news was made public, according to two people familiar with his reaction.
While rallies are Trump’s favorite events, election-year politics have changed since his last one, on March 2. The coronavirus has largely shut down the campaign trail, and more recently the national political conversation has been dominated by a fierce debate over police violence against Black Americans after the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Floyd’s death has sparked global protests against systemic racism and demands for police reform.
Speaking at the rally before the president took the stage, Pence urged the crowd to bring the enthusiasm that helped sweep Trump into office in 2016. “Get ready. Buckle up,” he said. “It’s on. We’ve got a little more than four months to win four more years for President Donald Trump in the White House. So get ready to bring it.”
During the first half of Trump’s speech, he delivered a 15-minute explanation of images that showed him ambling slowly down a ramp after delivering the commencement address at the West Point military academy. He blamed his slow walk on “leather soles” on his shoes and said he was trying not to fall on his behind.
Many people in Tulsa, worried about the record numbers of coronavirus cases in Oklahoma in recent days, did not welcome the rally. On Saturday afternoon, local Black leaders held a news conference in the city’s historic Greenwood neighborhood, where the 1921 massacre took place, pleading with the city’s mayor, G.T. Bynum, a Trump ally, to cancel the rally.
In the streets around the BOK Center, the president’s supporters — some of whom had lined up for days in the hopes of ensuring a seat in the stadium — gathered not far from Black Lives Matter protesters and people in town for the Juneteenth celebration. Many wore red MAGA hats while others wore caps with patriotic emblems or colors. Some waved red, white and blue banners with the Trump 2020 logo, the American flag, or the “Don’t Tread on Me” flag. Some wore them like capes. Almost none wore masks.
“If it is God’s will that I get coronavirus that is the will of the Almighty. I will not live in fear,” said Robert Montanelli, a resident of Broken Arrow, a Tulsa suburb.