TULSA, Okla. (CN) — A substantially smaller than expected crowd showed up to President Donald Trump’s rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Saturday night, disappointing a trailing reelection campaign seeking to reset during the Covid-19 pandemic and its economic fallout.
The BOK Center in downtown Tulsa appeared to be less than half full, with the upper bowl and standing room on the floor largely empty.
Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale had tweeted on June 15 that more than one million ticket requests had been made for the rally. The basketball arena has a capacity of approximately 19,000 — the campaign was expecting as many as 200,000 people to be downtown and had erected a large stage and rallying areas outside in anticipation of the crowd. Those areas were later closed and taken down when it became apparent the crowd would not materialize.
Parscale blamed the low turnout on “radical protesters” who were “fueled by a week of apocalyptic media coverage” to allegedly stop Trump supporters from entering the arena.
“They even blocked access to the metal detectors, preventing people from entering,” he tweeted as Trump began speaking.
Inside the arena, there appeared to be no social distancing or mask wearing. The campaign had made assurances that it would provide attendees with masks, temperature checks and hand sanitizer.
Several hundred Trump supporters were seen on the streets outside the arena during the speech, suggesting they refused to go inside even with the abundance of empty seats.
In his two hour-long speech, Trump alternated between bragging about his handling of the pandemic and airing grievances against his enemies. He referred to Covid-19 with the term “kung flu.”
Trump bragged about reviving Oklahoma’s ailing energy industry, stating “we have turned us into the most dominant energy superpower” in the world.
“Because of the Chinese virus, it looked like we’re in big trouble,” Trump said, alluding to West Texas Intermediate oil prices cratering below zero as stay-at-home orders went into place. “But we got it back together. I called Russia, I called Saudi Arabia and believe it or not I called Mexico. It’s called OPEC+. It’s OPEC-plus-plus. We got oil back up to $40 a barrel, you have an oil business again.”
Trump complained that he does not get enough credit for halting flights to the U.S. from China and later Europe to mitigate the spread of the virus.
“I saved hundreds of thousands of lives,” he yelled. “We don’t even get a mention!”
Trump bizarrely admitted that he told his staff to slow down the rate of testing for Covid-19 to reduce the number of positive cases after bragging the country has tested 25 million people.
“When you do testing of that extent, you are going to get more people testing positive,” he said. “I told my people to slow the testing down. We have got a 10-year-old with the sniffles — we’ve got a case!”
Trump alluded to mass protests across the U.S. the past three weeks over the killing of George Floyd, an unarmed black man, at the hands of Minneapolis police. The protesters have demanded measures to end systemic racism and police brutality and have torn down monuments to Confederate figures in several cities. Many are demanding changes to police department funding and want to channel the money to community and social services to better serve the public. Trump dismissed those calls, telling the crowd “you are so lucky I am president” right now.
“They want to destroy our heritage, they want to defund our police … Minneapolis, they are not kidding,” Trump said. “It’s one o’clock, a very tough hombre is breaking into the window of a young woman whose husband is away as a traveling salesman. And you call 911 and they say ‘I’m sorry this number is no longer working.’ You have many cases like this, an old woman, a young woman, a young man … these people are stone cold crazy.”
Trump claimed the protesters outside of the arena were engaging in “extremist violence by the extremist left.”
“There are very bad people outside,” he said. “Very bad people … doing very bad things.”
There were several tense yet peaceful confrontations between protesters and Trump supporters during the day. At the corner of South Boulder Avenue and West 4th Street, protesters shouting “Black Lives Matter” marched towards the arena.
A white male Trump supporter in a “Make America Great Again” hat told the protesters through a megaphone that the Democratic Party is “the most racist party in the history of America,” and that it was Republicans from the north who freed the slaves.
Steps away, a masked white man in a Kansas City Royals hat held a sign stating “Dissent is the highest form of patriotism.”
“I am just as American as you are,” the protester shouted back. “What you think as disrespectful is what I think is the last form of patriotism, thank you very much.”
The number of protesters increased substantially after the rally ended and night fell, outnumbering the number of Trump supporters leaving downtown.
Trump criticized the National Football League and Commissioner Roger Goddell for apologizing for the league’s handling of players kneeling during the national anthem in protest against racism and police brutality.
“Nobody asked you to say anything about it,” Trump said to cheers. “We talk about freedom of speech but that is desecration. We used to have things, we should have legislation that if someone wants to burn [the American flag] and stomp on it, they should go to jail for one year.”
The rally occurred one day after Trump was heavily criticized for threatening protesters, implying they would face physical violence in Tulsa.
“Any protesters, anarchists, agitators, looters or lowlifes who are going to Oklahoma please understand, you will not be treated like you have been in New York, Seattle, or Minneapolis,” Trump tweeted, “It will be a much different scene!”
The rally took place in spite of confirmed cases of Covid-19 spiking in Oklahoma since it began reopening on June 1. The Oklahoma State Department of Health reported Saturday night 10,037 total cases in the state — a 3.4 percent increase since Friday. It reported 368 total deaths — a 0.3 percent increase since Friday.
Trump’s campaign confirmed Saturday afternoon that six staffers on the ground preparing for the rally had tested positive for Covid-19 and were placed under quarantine. This came over one week after the campaign asked rally attendees to agree to a liability waiver where they assume “all risks related to exposure” to the coronavirus and promise to not sue the campaign or arena management.
The rally took place one day after the Oklahoma Supreme Court declined to halt it. In a 9-0 ruling, the high court decided social distancing was not required because Republican Governor Kevin Stitt left it up to business owners or local officials as part of the state’s Phase 3 reopening plans. The ruling came three days after a Tulsa County trial judge also refused to intervene.
Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum — a fellow Republican — has endured criticism for refusing to stop the rally in spite of admitting his own reservations against holding it. He cited an expected crowd of over 100,000 people and imposed a curfew downtown starting Thursday. There were no reports of arrests in spite of several dozen Trump supporters camping outside the arena in anticipation of the rally. The curfew was lifted one day later at Trump’s urging.
Unhappy with the mayor’s handling of the matter, mayoral aide Jack Graham announced his resignation Saturday night as Air Force One was landing in Tulsa.
“I appreciate the opportunities you have given me over the years, but my heart is telling me that I can no longer effectively support you and the decisions you make for Tulsa,” Graham’s resignation letter states.
Trump defended himself for brazenly scheduling the rally originally on Juneteenth, the June 19 holiday celebrated as the day slavery ended in America when Union soldiers informed slaves in Galveston, Texas, they were free more than two years after the Emancipation Proclamation and two months after the end of the Civil War. Trump’s campaign finally delayed the rally one day after initially pressing on with the original date.
“I have done more for the black community in four years than Joe Biden has in 47 years,” Trump told the crowd.
The Tulsa World newspaper bluntly told Trump his rally was not welcome in a June 15 editorial, acknowledging the symbolism of the rally taking place in a city 99 years after mobs of white people indiscriminately attacked and murdered black residents in the city’s Greenwood district. Trump had originally planned to tour Greenwood by foot Saturday afternoon, but Vice President Mike Pence took his place after locals complained of Trump’s divisiveness on the issue of race.
Trump warned his supporters that Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden will “lose control” of his party if he wins the election and that “extremist, far left” Democrats will hijack his agenda.
“Does anyone know what he says to his wife when he doesn’t confuse her with his sister?” Trump riffed. “He says ‘get me the hell out of here, these people are crazy.’”
A damning Reuters/Ipsos poll from June 17 showed Trump trailing Biden 35% to 48% among registered voters.