In a rare conciliatory gesture, President Donald Trump announced late Friday night that he is rescheduling a campaign rally that was slated to take place in Tulsa on Juneteenth, the day commemorating the end of slavery in the United States.
The announcement of the rally sparked an uproar earlier this week because of Tulsa’s history as the site of one of the worst incidents of racial violence in the nation’s history: the 1921 massacre of hundreds of African Americans who were attacked by a white mob that looted and burned many black-owned businesses and homes in the Greenwood District, a neighborhood that was then known as “Black Wall Street.”
Holding a rally on that day was viewed as yet another affront by Trump, who has so far refused to engage in any meaningful way in the profound conversation about systematic racism unfolding in this country.
After weeks of divisive rhetoric and demands for the nation’s governors to “dominate” the protesters in the streets with military force if necessary, Trump’s Twitter announcement Friday night fell short of an apology but marked a notable shift in tone.
Trump’s retreat followed several weeks in which he has failed to rise to a moment of profound cultural change in America. While he has held several roundtables with African American leaders following the death of George Floyd at the hands of a white police officer in Minneapolis, his instinct has been to ignore the national reckoning over race rather than lead it.
His message has instead centered on the need for “law and order” and his bizarre assertion in Dallas this week that the problems of bigotry and prejudice in America can be resolved “quickly” and “very easily.”
And instead of using this pivotal moment to expand his outreach – an imperative for his reelection campaign as his rival Joe Biden widens his lead in national polls – Trump has traveled to comfortable venues in states that are largely not in play in November.
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That puzzling strategy comes after several months in which Trump was largely contained at the White House because of the coronavirus pandemic. Now he is increasingly restless, yearning to fill arenas with supporters for the rallies he believes were critical in carrying him to victory in 2016. But at a time when Biden is barely traveling, Trump’s plans continue to be constrained by the slow re-opening of several of the most critical swing states led by Democratic governors.
A glance at the President’s travel calendar shows few signs of a concerted effort to persuade the voters he will need to help him win reelection. At a roundtable with African American leaders at the White House Wednesday, Trump said he planned to visit Florida, North Carolina and Arizona – three of the six target states that will likely be most decisive in determining the outcome of the election, according to CNN’s “Road to 270” analysis. But it is unclear when those plans will materialize, particularly as coronavirus cases rise at an alarming rate in Arizona.
So far, in his first forays outside the White House, Trump has mainly traveled to venues that offer a cocoon of political safety rather than a chance to engage and persuade undecided voters as the nation debates police reform after Floyd’s death.
On Thursday night, the President retreated to his private golf club in Bedminster, New Jersey, a solid blue state. On Saturday, he will deliver a socially distanced commencement speech to the graduating class of the US Military Academy at West Point, amid controversy over his relentless drive to involve the military in efforts to corral protesters.
Earlier Thursday, he traveled to Texas, a state he won by 9 points in 2016, for a campaign fundraiser and a roundtable focused on “justice disparities” in Dallas, where he said Americans need to work together to confront bigotry and prejudice but cautioned that the US will make no progress on that front “by falsely labeling tens of millions of decent Americans as racists or bigots.”
Three of the most prominent black law enforcement officials – the region’s police chief, sheriff and district attorney – were not invited to participate.
“When you initiate a conversation and you purport that conversation to be about racism and policing in America, and you fail to include the top three law enforcement officials in an area where you are speaking – I think that that says a lot, and that causes one to raise the brow,” Dallas County Sheriff Marian Brown told CNN’s Erin Burnett.
A week earlier, in the midst of heated protests over racism and police brutality, Trump traveled to Maine, one of the whitest states in the country, where he scarcely addressed the controversy surrounding Floyd’s death while speaking to workers at a company that manufactures coronavirus testing swabs.
Though Maine is a swing state that Trump lost in 2016, he visited Maine’s largely rural 2nd Congressional District, which he won by a 10-point margin in 2016 over Hillary Clinton. His attempt at broader outreach in Maine amounted to a few lines at the end of his speech asking his audience to help get him voters in the state’s 1st Congressional District, which he lost.
Reviving his rallies in Tulsa
Still, the most puzzling recent decision was his campaign’s announcement that Trump would hold his first rally since the start of the coronavirus next week in Oklahoma, a solidly red state that he won in 2016 with a 36-point margin.
Trump said during an interview with Fox New host Harris Faulkner that his rally in Tulsa wasn’t scheduled on Juneteenth “on purpose.”
“Think about it as a celebration. My rally is a celebration,” Trump told Faulkner in a clip of the Fox interview released Friday. “Don’t think about it as an inconvenience.”
Asked about the Tulsa visit this week, White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany said Trump is “working on rectifying injustices” and that Juneteenth is a “meaningful day to him and it’s a day where he wants to share some of the progress that’s been made” while addressing what “needs to be done” in the future.
But a GOP source familiar with Trump’s travel plans said Oklahoma was chosen, not only because the state is friendly to Trump, but because it has a low rate of coronavirus cases per capita compared with other states – making it a safer venue both for Trump and rally-goers who come to see him. Meanwhile, Trump has publicly downplayed the threat of the coronavirus. (Maine, Oklahoma and Texas rank among the 15 states with the fewest number of coronavirus cases per capita).
One of Trump’s confidants told CNN it was important to Trump to mark his return to the campaign trail in a place like Oklahoma that would welcome and accommodate the kind of energized and boisterous rally he wants.
Campaigning in a pandemic
In the midst of a pandemic, Trump’s desires for big rallies have made campaign planning difficult as his team tries to balance Trump’s desire to get out with big crowds, as well as the need to spend time in target states, against local officials’ fears about the potential spread of coronavirus.
The campaign has said it will take precautions to protect rally attendees but it is not yet clear what those specific measures will be. Attendees are being asked to agree to a disclaimer stating that they “voluntarily assume all risks related to exposure to COVID-19” and agree not to hold the campaign liable for any illness or injury.
During an appearance on “The Situation Room” Friday night, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert and a member of the White House coronavirus task force, said he hadn’t spoken to the President about his planned rally. But Fauci repeated advice he’s given throughout the pandemic: “The best thing to do is to avoid crowded areas. But if you’re not going to do that, please wear a mask.”
In a normal election year, the GOP source said, Trump would be cycling through states like Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Michigan, Florida, Wisconsin and Arizona with big rallies. This year, it’s a question of whether local officials, including Democratic governors, will agree to let him hold the kind of rallies he wants.
In the phased re-opening program outlined by Pennsylvania Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf, for example, 21 of the state’s counties are still in the “yellow phase” where large gatherings of more than 25 people are prohibited; another 46 counties have moved into the “green phase” where gatherings can include no more than 250 people – a far cry from the thousands of supporters Trump was able to draw to many of his events in 2016.
Earlier this month, Michigan Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced that some regions of the state with fewer coronavirus cases could advance to “stage five” of the state’s reopening plan, which allows indoor gatherings that do not exceed 50 people and outdoor events of up to 250 people, as long as people who are not in the same household maintain a distance of six feet from one another.
But Trump has already shown his impatience with Democratic officials who would dictate the layout and guidelines of the rallies he wants to hold in these states.
This week, Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel announced that Trump will accept the nomination at a 15,000-person arena in Jacksonville, Florida – abandoning plans for the convention to take place in Charlotte, North Carolina, where the President chafed at the social distancing restrictions that Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper would impose.