Washington – Donald Trump’s decision to pack thousands of people into an arena for his first campaign rally in three months, intended to reinvigorate both his re-election effort and the candidate himself, has instead kept the president on the defensive.
The Tulsa, Oklahoma, rally set for Saturday was supposed to signal that America is well on its way back to normal after weathering both the coronavirus outbreak and nationwide protests against police brutality. And the event was just as much about lifting the president’s own morale, following broad criticism of his response to the virus crisis and the unrest, according to officials familiar with the campaign.
But instead, the rally has led to new scrutiny of the president’s handling of both the pandemic and the nation’s divisive racial inequities. Health officials in Oklahoma have recommended delaying the event, expected to draw at least 100,000 people to the state’s second-largest city, as cases of COVID-19 spike. The city also is anticipating counterprotests.
The Oklahoma Supreme Court on Friday rejected a request from two Tulsa residents that rally attendees be required to wear face masks. Trump’s press secretary, Kayleigh McEnany, said she wouldn’t wear one, calling it a personal choice.
Trump already moved the rally back a day after initially scheduling it for Juneteenth, a commemoration of the end of slavery, following criticism that he was insensitive to the plight of African Americans. Moreover, Tulsa is the site of one of the worst incidents of racial violence in American history, the 1921 sacking of a prosperous Black neighborhood named Greenwood by a White mob.
The president warned Friday in a tweet that authorities would treat protesters more harshly than in other major U.S. cities where anti-brutality demonstrations have taken place recently.
Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum, a Republican, initially imposed a nighttime curfew through the weekend but rescinded it after Trump said the order wouldn’t apply to those attending his rally.
Trump said in a tweet that the Tulsa rally marks the start of his re-election effort. Rallies were the centerpiece of Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign and continued through his presidency, providing a platform to reach voters directly, as well as a trove of voter data. Trump began increasing their frequency in late 2019 — until the coronavirus forced the campaign to suspend them in March.
The virus has damaged Trump’s campaign in another way — undercutting his message that he should be re-elected because of a booming economy. Social-distancing measures and stay-at-home orders led to the loss of millions of jobs and sent the economy into a tailspin, and officially into recession.
Polls show Trump trailing Democrat Joe Biden nationally and in key swing states as voters express concern over the president’s handling of the virus and national protests that erupted over instances of police brutality and racism.
Yet Trump maintains an advantage over Biden: enthusiasm among his core supporters, reflected in polls and turnout at campaign events. The rallies highlight that difference, people close to the president said.
“There’s just a hunger for the rallies. And I enjoy doing them,” Trump said in an interview with Fox News on Wednesday. “It gives energy to everybody. And we have tremendous enthusiasm.”
Blocks from where some of Trump’s supporters were already camped out in the rain, hundreds of people gathered on Greenwood Avenue to celebrate Juneteenth.
“It felt like a slap in the face,” said Nadia Green, 39, of Trump’s decision to hold the rally in Tulsa. “This is a red state so I’m not really sure why the rally needs to be here,” she said. “But I appreciate that they moved” the date.
Rocky Duran, a 43-year-old Tulsa resident, had taken his 7-year-old son to check out the setting for the rally before they made their way over to the event in Greenwood.
“I want him to see both sides,” Duran said outside Frios Gourmet Pops on Greenwood, where they had just taken a selfie while holding dripping Popsicles. Duran added that he won’t vote for Trump, but isn’t sure about Biden. “I’m more of a libertarian,” he said.
Trump’s speech will likely highlight the economic achievements of his administration before the pandemic struck.
He will also argue that the best prescription to unite a country amid the nationwide protests and civil unrest is an economic one, according to administration officials.
The demonstrations were sparked by outrage over George Floyd, an unarmed Black man who died in the custody of a Minneapolis police officer who knelt on his neck for more than eight minutes.
Trump has rejected the idea of systemic racism among police, along with calls by protesters to overhaul law enforcement and cut police funding. Instead, he’s backing new training programs as well as economic development and school choice.
His campaign is sending more than 50 of its surrogates to the rally, including a large contingent representing the campaign’s outreach initiative called “Black Voices for Trump.”
Oklahoma is a securely red state and its Black population is just 7.8 percent, below the national average.
Paris Dennard, a senior communications adviser at the Republican National Committee, defended Trump’s initial decision to hold the rally on Juneteenth. He said the media took a “negative” view of the choice, but that he and other Black campaign and White House officials officials were supportive.
Dennard said they saw the rally date as an opportunity for Trump to highlight both the holiday and “Black Wall Street,” another name for Tulsa’s Greenwood District, which was a beacon of Black wealth before it was wiped out by White mobs.
The economic element “fits into the president’s vision for” Black Americans, Dennard said. “When it was decided” that the rally would be held on June 19, “we said ‘Well, we can make this work.’”
In remarks alongside Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt at a White House event about reopening small businesses on Thursday, Trump boasted of the audience he’s likely to draw.
The campaign said more than 1 million tickets have been requested and has tweeted pictures of people who started lining up for the event earlier this week.
“Big crowds and lines already forming in Tulsa. My campaign hasn’t started yet. It starts on Saturday night in Oklahoma!” Trump said in a tweet on Friday.
Biden has largely been confined to his home in Delaware and hasn’t held many public campaign events because of the pandemic. A June 8 CNN poll showed that Trump’s supporters are more enthusiastic to vote for him in November than those who plan to vote for Biden.
Trump trails Biden by an average of 8.5 percentage points, nationally, according to the average of polls compiled by RealClear Politics, although state-by-state polls are key.
Saturday’s rally will be held the BOK Center, an indoor arena that has capacity of about 20,000 people. Local officials expect an overflow crowd of perhaps 80,000 more people, including 35,000 in a nearby convention center and thousands in the streets.
Tulsa Mayor Bynum had issued an executive order on Thursday evening, instituting a curfew for the city’s downtown area from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. through Sunday morning, saying that information from authorities shows that “individuals from organized groups who have been involved in destructive and violent behavior in other states are planning to travel” to Tulsa “for the purposes of causing unrest in and around the rally.”
But Trump said Friday in a tweet that Bynum told him the curfew wouldn’t apply to those attending his rally. Bynum’s office then announced he repealed the curfew altogether.
The event is moving forward despite concern raised by epidemiologists and local health officials that there’s been a spike in cases in Tulsa and that indoor events are ideal for transmitting the coronavirus. The state has recommended attendees get virus tests before and after the rally.
Oklahoma is currently experiencing one of the sharpest increases in virus cases in the country, with its caseload jumping 5 percent based on 450 new cases reported on Thursday. The latest data marked a sharp increase from its previous record of 259, set one day earlier. On Friday, the state reported 352 new cases. Tulsa County has highest number of cases in the state. Oklahoma’s incidence of COVID-19 is relatively low compared with many other U.S. states.
Campaign officials have downplayed safety concerns, saying they’ll conduct temperature checks, and offer masks and hand sanitizer to those attending as a precaution against spreading the virus. But masks won’t be required.
In a briefing this week, McEnany complained of a double standard, criticism of Trump over the rally but not of the protests, with people marching shoulder-to-shoulder in the streets. The likelihood of coronavirus spreading is believed to be much higher in indoor settings than outdoors, though.
A spokeswoman for the BOK Center, Meghan Blood, said in a statement that it had asked the campaign for a plan “detailing the steps the event will institute for health and safety, including those related to social distancing.”
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