WASHINGTON - President Donald Trump held a campaign rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Saturday evening, his first since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic.
The event was designed to be a show of political force to reenergize his base ahead of the November election but was marked by coronavirus fears and a lower-than-expected turnout.
Declaring "the silent majority is stronger than ever before," Trump called his supporters “warriors” and hit on familiar campaign themes, including conservative judicial appointees, low taxes, the booming stock market, the wall on the southern border with Mexico, and ramping up the military budget. The 1-hour, 40-minute speech was full of attacks on his Democratic rival and presidential nominee-in-waiting Joe Biden, the “radical left” and “fake news.”
Trump defended his administration’s handling of the pandemic, blaming the high numbers -- over 2.2 million coronavirus cases and 119,000 deaths nationwide -- on extensive coronavirus testing.
“When you do testing to that extent, you’re gonna find more people, you’re gonna find more cases. So, I said to my people, slow the testing down, please,” Trump said, adding that his administration “saved millions of lives.”
A White House official clarified Trump's comment after the rally. “He was clearly speaking in jest to call out the media’s absurd coverage. We are leading the world in testing, and we are proud to have conducted 25 million-plus tests," the official said in a statement.
While Trump has often referred to the coronavirus as the “Chinese virus," for the first time he referred to it publicly as the “kung-flu” and blamed Beijing for the pandemic.
Ridiculing calls by some on the left to defund the police, Trump brought back the racially charged term “hombre.”
“It’s 1 o’clock in the morning,” Trump said. “A very tough hombre is breaking into the window of a woman whose husband is away as a traveling salesman or whatever he may do. You call 911, and they say, ‘I'm sorry, this number is no longer working.’”
Trump first used the term during the 2016 election campaign when he labeled people who came to the U.S. illegally “bad hombres” and called for their deportation.
In a speech that mostly focused on domestic issues, Trump boasted about the killing of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps major general Qassem Soleimani. He mentioned China at least 11 times, mostly in the context of laying blame for the pandemic and the trade war, and calling presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden “a puppet for China.”
The president disparaged the Black Lives Matter movement and media coverage of the protests that have rocked the country for weeks since the May 25 death of George Floyd, a black man who died while in the custody of Minnesota police officers.
“They never talk about COVID,” Trump said. “You see 25,000 people walking down Fifth Avenue or walking down the street of a Democrat-run city, you never hear them saying they're not wearing the mask,” he said.
Slamming movements across the country aiming to remove or replace monuments honoring Confederate generals, Trump told supporters, “This cruel campaign of censorship and exclusion violates everything we hold dear as Americans. They want to demolish our heritage so they can impose a new oppressive regime it its place.”
Trump took pains to rebut negative coverage and speculation about his health after his recent appearance at West Point, where he appeared to walk with difficulty down a ramp and used both hands to drink from a glass of water.
“The stage was higher than this one and the ramp was probably 10 yards long,” Trump said, likening it to “an ice skating rink.” Saying that his arm was tired from “saluting 600 times” and wanting to avoid spilling water on his silk tie, Trump reenacted drinking from a glass, tossing it aside afterwards to cheers from the crowd.
The Trump campaign canceled speeches from both the president and the vice president to supporters outside the BOK Center as attendance appeared to fall short of expectations. The campaign had hyped the dual speeches from each leader to highlight the massive turnout they were expecting in Tulsa.
Steve Phillips, founder of Democracy in Color, a political organization focused on race and politics, and host of a podcast by the same name, called the turnout “embarrassingly small.”
Trump’s “high-wire act of defying the political laws of gravity by relying on the support of white nationalism and racial fears is finally crashing to the ground,” said Phillips in an email to VOA. “Even hardcore Trump supporters are not willing to enter a COVID-19 death chamber just to assuage Trump's ego and make him feel better.”
The campaign blamed protesters and the media for the low turnout. “Sadly, protesters interfered with supporters, even blocking access to the 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,” said campaign spokesperson Tim Murtaugh in a statement released before the event.
Reporters on the scene denied Murtaugh’s account that large groups of people were turned away by protesters.
Trump had said earlier in the week that the campaign had received nearly a million ticket requests for the rally.
"No doubt, COVID-19 played a role in the depressed turnout,” said Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. But if Trump can’t fill an arena in a state he carried overwhelmingly, Sabato said, “you have to wonder how he’s going to fare in swing states that may have turned against him.”
Still, the crowd cheered for Trump, who appeared energetic and eager to bolster a reelection effort battered by a pandemic and nationwide demonstrations against racism.
Black comedian and Trump supporter Terrence K. Williams tweeted his support for the president from the rally arena, saying “we are all Americans” and that Trump rallies are for everyone.
Yes we are Black— Terrence K. Williams (@w_terrence) June 20, 2020
Yes we support President Trump
People want to know why me, my big brother @DavidJHarrisJr & other blacks are at the rally
BECAUSE ITS NOT ABOUT COLOR!
WE ARE ALL AMERICANS
President @realDonaldTrump rallies are for everyone #TulsaTrumpRally#TrumpTulsaRally pic.twitter.com/BsMVCHFSdG
While Trump energized supporters in his Tulsa rally, the first since early March, Larry Sabato projected that the boost for his reelection will be small.
“This election is a referendum on Donald Trump,” Sabato said. “Maybe rallies pump up the enthusiasm of the Trump troops, but the rallies could backfire if there’s a COVID-19 outbreak among the participants afterwards.”
The campaign conducted temperature checks and handed out face masks and hand sanitizer to anyone who wanted them. But many among the thousands of Trump supporters were not wearing masks as they cheered shoulder-to-shoulder for the president in an arena with a capacity of 19,000 people.
Rally-goer Josie Saltarelli, 38, a paramedic from Tulsa, said she wasn't worried about the coronavirus. "People die of other things all the time,” she said.
The Oklahoma Supreme Court on Friday rejected a request by local residents that rally-goers be required to wear masks to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, ruling that the residents did not have a clear legal right to seek such a mandate.
Prior to the rally, the campaign announced that six Trump campaign staff members who helped prepare for the event tested positive for the coronavirus. Murtaugh, the campaign spokesperson, said they would not attend the rally and would follow quarantine procedures.
In a news conference on Wednesday, the city's Republican mayor, G.T. Bynum, said he would not be attending Trump's rally amid fears of the coronavirus.
Rally-goers had to sign off on a legal disclaimer on the online registration page of the event acknowledging that they “voluntarily assume all risks related to exposure to COVID-19 and agree not to hold Donald J. Trump for President, Inc.; BOK Center; ASM Global; or any of their affiliates, directors, officers, employees, agents, contractors, or volunteers liable for any illness or injury.”