Politics

Trump comeback rally features empty seats, staff infections

President Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally in Tulsa, Okla., Saturday, June 20, 2020. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)

TULSA, Okla. (AP) — President Donald Trump pressed ahead Saturday with a comeback rally amid an pandemic by declaring “the silent majority is stronger than ever before,” but what was meant to be a show of political force was instead met with thousands of empty seats and new coronavirus cases on his campaign staff.

Ignoring health warnings, Trump scheduled the rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma. It was intended to be the largest indoor gathering in the world during the outbreak that has killed more than 120,000 Americans, put 40 million more out of work and upended Trump’s reelection bid. But in the hours before the event, crowds seemed significantly lighter than expected. Campaign officials scrapped plans for Trump to first address an overflow space.

Trump tried to explain away the crowd size, blaming it on the media for declaring “don’t go, don’t come, don’t do anything” while insisting there were protesters outside “doing bad things,” though the small crowds of prerally demonstrators were largely peaceful.

“We begin our campaign,” Trump thundered. “The silent majority is stronger than ever before.”

But huge swaths of empty seats remained in the downtown arena before Trump was to take the stage. And that came on the heels of the campaign revealing that six staff members who were helping set up for the event had tested positive for the virus. Campaign communications director Tim Murtaugh said that “quarantine procedures were immediately implemented,” and that neither the affected staffers nor anyone who was in immediate contact with them would attend the event.

News of the infections came just a short time before Trump departed for Oklahoma, and the president raged to aides that it was made public, according to two White House and campaign officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to speak publicly about private conversations.

Large gatherings in the United States were shut down in March because of the coronavirus. The rally was scheduled over the protests of local health officials as COVID-19 cases spike in many states, while the choice of host city and date — it was originally set for Friday, Juneteenth, only to be moved a day — prompted anger amid a national wave of protests against racial injustice.

But Trump and his advisers forged forward, believing that a return to the rally stage would reenergize the president, who is furious that he has fallen behind Democrat Joe Biden in polls, and reassure Republicans growing anxious about the state of the presidential race and their ability to hold onto the Senate. But the smaller-than-expected crowds may only increase GOP worries.

The president’s campaign tried to point fingers elsewhere, but the protests outside the arena, which also were smaller than expected, remain largely peaceful in the hours before the event.

“Sadly, protestors interfered with supporters, even blocking access to the metal detectors, which prevented people from entering the rally,” Murtaugh said in a statement. “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.”

In the minutes before the president arrived at the downtown arena, Trump supporters who signed up for tickets received a text urging them to show up, declaring, “There’s still space!”

It’s been more than three months since the nation last saw a Trump rally. The unemployment rate stood at about 3.5% that March 2. The number of coronavirus cases in the U.S. was estimated at 91.

Now, the unemployment rate stands at 13.3%, based on the most recent monthly report. The number of confirmed coronavirus cases has soared to about 2.2 million. The number of deaths reported in the U.S. has surpassed 119,000. Outrage over the criminal justice system’s treatment of minorities following the death of George Floyd and other African Americans has spawned protests around the nation. Only about a quarter of Americans say the country is headed in the right direction.

Trump was determined to return to his signature campaign events. He dismissed complaints that bringing together throngs for an indoor rally risked spreading the coronavirus as nothing more than politics.

Trump’s visit also raised fears of clashes between protesters and Trump supporters, and there were brief confrontations Saturday afternoon. But the crowds were not materializing despite the president’s bravado.

“Big crowds and lines already forming in Tulsa. My campaign hasn’t started yet. It starts on Saturday night in Oklahoma!” Trump tweeted Friday.

City officials had expected a crowd of 100,000 people or more in downtown Tulsa. Trump’s campaign, for its part, declared that it had received over a million ticket requests. The crowd that gathered was far less than that, though the rally, being broadcast on cable, will also target voters in battleground states such as Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Florida.

The campaign said it would hand out masks and hand sanitizer, but there was no requirement that participants use them. Participants were also to undergo a temperature check.

“I don’t think it’s anything worse than the flu,” said Brian Bernard, 54, a retired IT worker from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, who sported a Trump 2020 hat. “I haven’t caught a cold or a flu in probably 15 years, and if I haven’t caught a cold or flu yet, I don’t think I’m gonna catch COVID.”

Trump has generally held his campaign rallies in swing states or in Democratic-leaning states such as Colorado or New Mexico that he hopes to flip this November. Oklahoma fits none of those categories. The last Democratic candidate to emerge victorious there in a presidential election was Lyndon Johnson in 1964. Trump won the state with more than 65% of the vote in the 2016 election. The Republican stronghold gives Trump more assurance that he’ll face little resistance to his efforts from top state officials.

The rally was originally scheduled for Friday, but it was moved back a day following an uproar that it otherwise would have happened on Juneteenth, and in a city where a 1921 white-on-Black attack killed as many as 300 people.

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Lemire reported from New York. Associated Press writers John Mone and Ellen Knickmeyer in Tulsa, Okla., contributed to this report.

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