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Trump campaign, Democrats joust over Tulsa rally turnout

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 6/21/2020 Felicia Sonmez, Taylor Telford
a crowd of people watching a baseball game: The Trump campaign rally at the BOK Center in Tulsa on June 20, 2020, had a lower-than-expected turnout. © Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post The Trump campaign rally at the BOK Center in Tulsa on June 20, 2020, had a lower-than-expected turnout.

The Trump campaign on Sunday sought to blame concerns about protesters for the lower-than-expected turnout at the president’s rally in Tulsa, even though the campaign itself had raised expectations about attendance by touting the number of people who had signed up for tickets online.

Reporters on site also saw little evidence of attendees being blocked from going to the event.

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In the days leading up to Saturday night’s rally, Trump’s reelection campaign repeatedly touted figures suggesting that as many as 1 million people had signed up to attend. But the crowd did not fill the 19,000-seat BOK Center, with swaths of upper-level seating empty.

In an interview on “Fox News Sunday,” campaign adviser Mercedes Schlapp argued that turnout was lower than expected because Trump supporters were afraid of protests outside the venue turning violent.

People were concerned about the demonstrations, Schlapp said, “and so, we saw that have an impact” on the number of attendees. Pressed by host Chris Wallace on the fact that the Trump campaign itself had raised expectations about high attendance numbers, Schlapp replied, “There were people and families who didn’t bring their children because of concerns about the protesters.”

Outside the rally venue Saturday night, one group of protesters blocked one of three entrances for about 15 minutes — but by that point, most people had already entered the arena’s outer perimeter.

By the time Trump took the stage, there had been tense verbal confrontations outside but no reports of violence. Civilians carrying military-style rifles and pistols wandered amid the crowds, claiming they wanted to keep people safe, while Tulsa police and National Guard troops restrained and separated opposing sides.

Symone Sanders, a senior adviser to former vice president Joe Biden’s 2020 presidential campaign, sharply criticized the Trump campaign’s decision to hold the rally amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The sign-up page for the rally, for instance, contained a disclaimer noting that attendees “voluntarily assume all risks related to exposure to COVID-19” and agree not to hold the campaign or venue liable should they get sick. Fears that the rally could accelerate the spread of the virus were underscored when six members of the Trump campaign advance team tested positive.

Trump’s “debacle of a rally last night will long be remembered,” Sanders said on “Fox News Sunday,” arguing that the “most damning thing” was the president’s statement that he had asked members of his administration to slow down coronavirus testing to keep case numbers down.

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A White House official told The Washington Post that Trump had been joking.

“This is an appalling attempt to lessen the numbers only to make him look good,” Sanders said, describing Trump’s rally remarks as “the admission of the president that he slowed testing for his political benefit.”

Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms (D) accused the Trump campaign Sunday of showing “no concern for what it means for people to be gathering in large numbers.”

In an interview on CNN’s “State of the Union,” she called the rally an embarrassment and said she hoped the lower-than-expected turnout was a “preview for November.”

“Finally people are recognizing that this man is a danger to our country, a danger to our democracy and that he should not be the president of the United States of America. … I just hope that this is a good sign that the country is moving on from him,” Bottoms said.

Robert Klemko contributed to this report.

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