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Trump's Tulsa Rally Adds to Week of Warning Signs for Campaign

Bloomberg logo Bloomberg 6/21/2020 Mario Parker, Josh Wingrove and Rachel Adams-Heard

Video by Reuters

(Bloomberg) -- Donald Trump’s first campaign rally since coronavirus swept the U.S. will be remembered more for what the president would rather forget, as his attempt to reset his re-election bid drew a disappointing crowd in a safe state.

The event in downtown Tulsa, Oklahoma, on Saturday attracted far fewer supporters than Trump and his advisers had promised. And it was overshadowed by continuing criticism of his response to the pandemic and to nationwide protests against police brutality.

The ouster of the top federal prosecutor in New York emerged as a fresh controversy just hours before the president touched down in the city.

Trump and his campaign manager, Brad Parscale, had boasted that a million people requested tickets online for the Tulsa rally, and Trump flatly promised there wouldn’t be an empty seat. He had planned to speak to crowds both outdoors and inside, but scrapped the outdoor remarks after a scant showing. Inside Tulsa’s BOK Center, upper-level seating was mostly empty.

The campaign blamed protesters, claiming they had blocked Trump supporters from passing through security checkpoints. That could not be verified, and the Tulsa police department said in a tweet that protesters had been “overwhelmingly” peaceful. The poor showing added to indications that Trump’s re-election is far from certain and that his campaign risks derailment.

He has fallen behind his Democratic opponent, former Vice President Joe Biden, in national polls and surveys of key battleground states. In May, Biden’s campaign outraised Trump’s for the first time, while Trump’s campaign spent twice as much money.

Donald Trump et al. in front of a crowd posing for the camera: President Trump pauses during a rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, U.S., on June 20. © Bloomberg President Trump pauses during a rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, U.S., on June 20. Trump declared Saturday that he would win re-election, despite recent polls, and alluded to nationwide protests against police violence against people of color.

“I stand before you today to declare that the silent majority is stronger than ever before,” Trump said. “We are the party of Abraham Lincoln, and we are the party of law and order.”On Saturday, the president said nothing about the size of the crowd.

He painted Biden as a befuddled puppet of the Democratic Party’s leftmost flank.

“Does anybody honestly think he controls these radical maniacs?” Trump said, at one point asking the crowd: “Do you know what he says to his wife, when he’s not confusing her with his sister?”

Trump vs. Virus

In the hours before his arrival, Trump courted new controversy as Geoffrey S. Berman, the chief federal prosecutor in New York, resigned following a remarkable stand-off with Attorney General William Barr, who said the president had fired him. But Trump told reporters as he departed the White House for Tulsa that Barr was responsible for Berman’s removal, saying “I’m not involved.”

The president has struggled to maintain enthusiasm for his campaign as coronavirus ravaged the country and cities nationwide were convulsed by protests following the death of George Floyd last month at the hands of Minneapolis police. Over the course of a week, a damaging new book by Trump’s former national security adviser, John Bolton, and the ousting of Berman on Saturday added to the president’s travails.

Trump’s large, raucous rallies were the lifeblood of his 2016 campaign, and he had begun to increase their frequency late last year as he prepared for re-election. But the coronavirus outbreak ruined his best argument for another term -- the strength of the U.S. economy, now in recession -- and sidetracked his campaign’s favorite tactic, making rallies impossible since March.

Saturday’s rally marked a return to script for a president who has long thrived on the crowds and sharp partisanship of the events. It was also meant to be a declaration of victory over the virus -- the administration has touted Oklahoma as a reopening success story, although cases of the disease spiked in the state ahead of the rally.

Local health officials had recommended delaying the event, but the campaign pressed ahead. Some campaign advance staff in Oklahoma tested positive for the virus, news that emerged shortly before Trump departed the White House.

Masks were distributed to attendees as they entered the arena, but few people actually were seen wearing them.

Trump dedicated portions of his speech to the virus, at one point calling it the “Kung Flu,” one of a handful of racially insensitive comments. He warned that conceding to demands by police brutality protesters to abolish law enforcement would leave the wife of a traveling salesman vulnerable to “a very tough hombre.” And he said that a Democratic congresswoman who is a Somali refugee, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, sought to “make the government of our country just like the country from where she came.”

He also sought to play down the risks of the pandemic. “Testing is a double-edged sword,” he said. “When you do testing to that extent you’re going to find more people. So I said to my people, slow the testing down.”

A White House official, who asked not to be identified, later said the president was joking when he spoke about slowing down testing.

Ramps and Water

His speech, which ran roughly one hour and 44 minutes, saw him touch on recent controversies, including speculation about his health after his unsteady walk down a ramp at West Point’s commencement ceremony last weekend, and online jokes about why he has appeared to struggle to drink glasses of water without using both hands.

On Saturday, after he was brought a glass of water at the rally lectern, Trump flamboyantly drank it with one hand and then flung it aside. The crowd cheered.

Outside the arena, tensions escalated between protesters and Trump supporters ahead of the rally. Protesters clustered near the entrance to the event, where Oklahoma National Guard troops stood in a line.

Some of the demonstrators chanted “hands up don’t shoot,” a phrase common at nationwide protests against police brutality over the past month. Trump supporters entering the rally chanted “go Trump.”

“You are warriors, thank you, we had some very bad people outside, we had some very bad people outside, they were doing some bad things,” Trump told his audience.

‘5D Chess’

After Trump’s remarks, police confronted protesters and briefly fired unidentified projectiles that produced eye irritants before backing off.

Trump’s campaign boasted after the rally that despite the poor in-person attendance, more than four million people had watched the event online. “These numbers represent unmatched enthusiasm behind the President’s re-election and a massive audience that Joe Biden can only dream of,” campaign communications director Tim Murtaugh said.

But some Biden campaign officials gloated over the scene in the arena.“The ol’ Trump 5D chess at work,” digital director Rob Flaherty tweeted in response to a picture of empty seats above the stage as Vice President Mike Pence spoke.

On his way from the arena back to Air Force One -- the plane’s successor factored into the speech, as Trump recalled haggling with an unnamed Boeing Co. executive he called a “dumb son of a bitch” -- Trump issued another defiant tweet.

“THE SILENT MAJORITY IS STRONGER THAN EVER BEFORE!” he wrote.

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