TULSA, Okla. — President Donald Trump drew lower-than-expected turnout at his first rally in months on Saturday in Tulsa amid a tense political backdrop, nationwide anti-racism protests, and warnings from health officials about the coronavirus.
Trump began the rally, his first since early March, by thanking the crowd of supporters indoors for coming, despite efforts from "some very bad people outside," alluding to the campaign's unfounded claim that protesters were responsible for the many empty seats inside Tulsa's 19,000-seat Bank of Oklahoma Center by blocking rally-goers from entering.
"We begin! We begin! We begin our campaign," Trump said to applause. "I stand before you today to declare the Silent Majority is stronger than ever before!"
Trump's return to the campaign trail, however, comes as the country has a national reckoning over race in a city where one of the worst acts of racial violence in American history occurred. White residents went on a horrific spree of murder, arson, and looting, known as the Tulsa Race Massacre, in a wealthy Black community in 1921.
The Trump campaign had initially scheduled the campaign for June 19, which is known as Juneteenth —a day that commemorates the end of slavery in the U.S — but postponed it after criticism.
Trump made no mention of the historical tragedy as he gave his typical freewheeling campaign speech, ranging from calling news media fake news to his administration's response to the coronavirus pandemic.
Trump peppered his speech with various criticisms of former Vice President Joe Biden, his presumed Democratic rival in the 2020 presidential election, including on race.
“Virtually every policy that has hurt Black Americans for half a century, Joe Biden has supported or enacted,” Trump said. “I have done more for the Black community in four years then Joe Biden has done in 47 years."
Hours before the rally kicked off, the campaign said six staff members involved in organizing it had tested positive for coronavirus, including two Secret Service members. The campaign said it will conduct contact tracing and those officials would not attend Saturday's rally.
At Saturday's rally, Trump again blamed testing as the reason for spikes in the number of COVID-19 cases despite the fact that both data and public health experts connect the surge to the easing of lockdown restrictions in various states.
"Testing is a double-edged sword," Trump told the crowd. "Here's the bad part: when you do testing to that extent, you will find more cases."
Trump said he has tried to tell his officials to slow down testing, even as states such as Texas, Nevada, and Florida have seen recent upticks in cases. His campaign issued a statement after the rally saying the president's remarks were in jest.
However, the campaign refused to cancel or significantly scale down the event despite warnings from health officials and a last-ditch legal challenge about the fear of spreading COVID-19 at one of the largest public gatherings since the outbreak began.
After the rally ended, Trump’s campaign tried to downplay the low turnout by citing the statement on Tulsa rally viewership on social media, calling it “unmatched enthusiasm behind the President’s re-election.”
The president also spent a great deal of time recounting the media and pundit reaction to his now-viral and noticeably cautious walk down a conventional-looking ramp after a speech at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point last week.
The president also went after NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, a familiar target, for apologizing this month for opposing players kneeling to protest police brutality during the national anthem.
“We will never kneel to our national anthem or our great American flag,” Trump said.
Trump, who has referred to COVID-19 at the “Chinese virus,” at one point referred to the coronavirus as the “Kung Flu,” a racist term his White House counselor Kellyanne Conway told reporters in March was “highly offensive” after reports of aides using the term.
Trump boasted days before the event, telling reporters, “We've never had an empty seat, and we certainly won't in Oklahoma." Trump’s campaign claimed that nearly 1 million people had requested tickets to the event.
Although a large crowd of his supporters - many sporting 'Make America Great Again' hats, shirts, and signs - gathered inside the arena, many of whom were not wearings masks, the campaign's crowd expectations were not met as many seats were empty. An outdoor stage set up for an overflow crowd was dismantled when no overflow occurred.
Some supporters near the podium appeared to be wearing face coverings. Republican lawmakers, many of whom were not wearing face coverings, were also in attendance. Campaign officials said masks were offered, and temperatures of rally-goers and reporters were checked on the way into the arena.
A tense and chaotic scene erupted outside the arena, mostly between Trump supporters and anti-racism protesters, many of whom were peaceful and support the Black Lives Matter movement. Police and members of the Oklahoma National Guard were also on-scene near the arena ahead of the rally to create a buffer zone between protesters and rally-goers.
MSNBC aired live footage of an anti-racism protester, who had a ticket to the rally, being physically moved by police for refusing to move out of a street near the rally. The unnamed woman was wearing an "I can't breathe" T-shirt memorializing the words heard by George Floyd before his death in police custody. Other protesters had "8:46" signs, the amount of time the Minnesota officer kneeled on Floyd's neck.
The Trump campaign criticized protesters in a statement.
“President Trump is rallying in Tulsa with thousands of energetic supporters, a stark contrast to the sleepy campaign being run by Joe Biden from his basement in Delaware," campaign spokesman Tim Murtaugh said. "Radical protestors, coupled with a relentless onslaught from the media, attempted to frighten off the President’s supporters. We are proud of the thousands who stuck it out.”
Trump, who emphasized that the rally he is the "Law and Order" president, Trump criticized the media's coverage of the protest sparked by Floyd's death versus his rally related to COVID-19.
"They don't talk about, when you see 25,000 people walking down Fifth Avenue, or walking down a street of a Democrat-run city, you never hear them saying they are not wearing their masks," Trump said.
Many protesters around the country, including those demonstrating outside the Tulsa arena, have worn masks.
The Oklahoma State Department of Health reported 331 new COVID-19 cases across the state on Saturday, bringing the total number of the state’s number of cases to more than 10,000. Those attending the rally must sign a waiver protecting the campaign from responsibility. On Friday, Oklahoma's Supreme Court rejected a lawsuit to delay the rally because of coronavirus fears.
Many states around the country, including Oklahoma, have begun reopening despite the U.S. recently topping more than 2.2 million coronavirus cases as of Saturday, according to an NBC News tally.
Trump was originally slated to speak to overflow crowds outside of Saturday's rally, but his campaign told NBC News moments before the rally began that the president would not make that appearance. The campaign said in a statement protestors had been interfering with people attending the rally, however, MSNBC reported that was not the case. There were also very few supporters gathered in the overflow area outside the event. Campaign workers were seen dismantling outdoor stages shortly before Trump arrived at the arena.
Vice President Mike Pence, who held a roundtable with Black faith and community leaders in Tulsa several miles away from the rally, also declined to speak to crowds outside.
Trump's rally also comes as he faces another political maelstrom in Washington. A judge ruled on Saturday that Trump's former national security advisor John Bolton can publish his tell-book about his time in the White House, which paints a damning portrait of the president.
Trump also faces scrutiny over his firing of Geoffrey Berman, the Manhattan U.S. attorney in New York, who was investigating members of the president's inner circle. Trump told reporters on Saturday he was "not involved" in the firing, telling reporters before heading to Tulsa, "That's all up to the attorney general."
Attorney General William Barr had initially announced Berman was resigning. However, Berman issued a statement contradicting Barr and said he would only leave if the Senate confirms his replacement. Berman left his position after deputy U.S. attorney Audrey Strauss was named acting U.S. attorney.
Susan Kroll reported from Tulsa, Oklahoma, Monica Alba from Washington, and Dartunorro Clark from New York.