President Donald Trump returns to the campaign trail Saturday in Tulsa with his first rally since the coronavirus pandemic began, looking to reignite support for his struggling reelection bid while sweeping aside concerns from his own health experts and continuing to stoke tensions by threatening protesters outside his Oklahoma spectacle.
Trump is eager to resume the boisterous rallies that he believes were key to his 2016 victory at a time when his reelection prospects have dimmed, in large part because many Americans disapprove of his handling of both the coronavirus and his response to calls for racial justice that are gripping this country.
His own plans for the rally – originally scheduled for Friday, which was Juneteenth – the day marking the end of slavery in the United States – may have only deepened the sense that the President, who has a history of making racist remarks and is opposed to renaming military bases named for Confederate leaders, is out of touch with a county trying to reckon with its racially violent past. That past is especially painful in Tulsa, home to a 1921 massacre of hundreds of Black Americans who were attacked by a White mob in Greenwood, a neighborhood then known as “Black Wall Street” that was looted and burned.
Trump is seeking to shift public attention from his especially difficult week, which included a series of unflattering bombshells revealed in a new book by his former national security adviser John Bolton, who described Trump as unfit for the White House, and two setbacks for his administration on LGBTQ rights and immigration at the Supreme Court. Late on Friday night, Trump’s attorney general tried to oust a powerful US attorney who has investigated a number of associates of the President, but the Manhattan prosecutor refused to step down.
The President hopes to demonstrate vigor and resolve as America faces a pandemic, an economic crash and impassioned demonstrations against racism, while casting his rival Joe Biden as an aging political relic whose supporters lack enthusiasm for his bid. Trump’s campaign spokesman told CNN this week that the rally will signal to the rest of the country “that it’s time to get things moving again.”
But by gathering his backers at Tulsa’s Bank of Oklahoma Center arena – an indoor venue that holds 19,000 people – the President is zealously flouting nearly every one of the principles outlined by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for gatherings of people, as CNN’s Dr. Sanjay Gupta noted Friday.
Trump’s own team isn’t immune. Six campaign staffers working on the Tulsa rally tested positive for coronavirus, the campaign confirmed Saturday. Tulsa County on Saturday reported a new record of daily coronavirus infections.
But Trump has long demonstrated his disdain for science, reason and the advice of experts, especially if it conflicts with his political goals. Even as he commands the highest office in the land, he has skillfully honed his image as an outsider operating from the inside in the eyes of his loyal base.
Relishing his instinct to divide at a time when he is trailing the former vice president by double digits in national polls, Trump sparked fears of confrontations in the streets of Tulsa when he warned in a Friday tweet that protesters would not be tolerated by law enforcement.
“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. It will be a much different scene!” he tweeted.
White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany insisted later Friday that the President was referring to “violent protesters, anarchists, looters,” even though it was the administration that came under scrutiny for using force to push back peaceful protesters in Lafayette Square.
Health concerns abound in Tulsa
The President’s ardent supporters have now been lining up for days in Tulsa hoping to be among the earliest entrants to his rally, while public health officials worry the rally could lead to a rapid spread of Covid-19 in a state already seeing a rise in cases.
Trump, who has asserted that the virus is “fading away” – in direct contradiction to the facts – has acknowledged that he and his advisers initially chose the Tulsa rally site in part because Oklahoma, a deep red state that has long voted Republican, appeared to have a lower incidence of coronavirus cases.
But that has changed in recent weeks. A CNN analysis of coronavirus data from John Hopkins University shows that the number of new Covid-19 cases is climbing each day – and Tulsa is an area of particular concern.
During a news conference Wednesday, the director of the Tulsa Health Department, Dr. Bruce Dart, said Tulsa set a new daily record for coronavirus cases this week.
“Let me be clear. Anyone planning to attend a large-scale gathering will face an increased risk of becoming infected with Covid-19,” Dart said.
Tulsa County Commissioner Karen Keith expressed alarm about the scene in the streets of Tulsa during a Friday interview on CNN’s “The Situation Room.”
“Nobody is wearing masks, and you know people are coming in, Wolf, from all over the country – so they could be coming in from hot spots,” Keith told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, noting that the city is expecting an additional 40,000 to 60,000 people outside the arena. “We love to welcome people to our city, but right now since we’re in a spike… the timing is very difficult.”
Trump’s campaign has said it plans to do temperature checks and provide hand sanitizer and masks to attendees, but no one will be required to wear one.
When registering for the event, rally-goers were asked to agree to a disclaimer noting an “inherent risk of exposure to Covid-19 exists in any public place where people are present.”
“By attending the Rally, you and any guests voluntarily assume all risks related to exposure to COVID-19 and agree not to hold Donald J. Trump for President, Inc.; BOK Center; ASM Global; or any of their affiliates, directors, officers, employees, agents, contractors, or volunteers liable for any illness or injury,” the disclaimer said.
The politically charged debate over masks has made the risks of attending the rally even more dangerous. Trump has never worn a mask in public, and the people around him at the White House are tested frequently, giving him an added measure of safety.
But he acknowledged this week that wearing masks has become a politically polarized issue. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, he said it was possible some people are wearing masks to show their disapproval of him.
Still, when asked by Wall Street Journal reporter Michael C. Bender whether he was comfortable with his supporters wearing masks at the Tulsa rally, Trump said, “Absolutely.”
“They can wear them or not. I want them to be happy,” he said.
The irony of Trump’s spotlight on Juneteenth
The President decided to forgo the opportunity to wade into the nation’s debate over systematic racism in the United States – instead demanding “law and order” and issuing divisive tweets like his Friday missive placing protesters in the same category as “anarchists, agitators, looters or lowlifes.” He had created a separate controversy Thursday night by tweeting a doctored viral video that was flagged by Twitter as “manipulated media” and later removed.
Yet the furor over his initial decision to hold the rally in Tulsa on June 19 ironically seems to have led to far greater national recognition of the day commemorating the end of slavery. In the midst of national protests following George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police, Trump rescheduled the rally in what he described as a gesture of respect for Juneteenth.
Both Black and White leaders had pleaded with Trump to change the date.
This week, governors in more than a half-dozen states, including Louisiana, Kansas, North Carolina, Nevada and Vermont, are taking action to commemorate Juneteenth.
In Kansas, for example, Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly signed a proclamation Friday declaring June 19 as Juneteenth National Freedom Day. “Juneteenth is not just a day to celebrate the end of slavery,” Kelly said during a Friday news conference. “It’s an opportunity to recognize a nation’s conflicting history, reflect on our struggle to realize true freedom for all Americans, and pledge to continue fighting to end systemic racism.”
Sen. John Cornyn, a Texas Republican, on Thursday said he’ll introduce legislation to make the day a federal holiday, as did several Democratic senators.
In the Wall Street Journal interview this week Trump was quoted as saying he made “Juneteenth very famous.”
“It’s actually an important event, it’s an important time. But nobody had heard of it,” he said in the interview. He added that one young African American Secret Service agent knew what the day commemorated, but Trump said he had political people “who had no idea.”
During a press briefing on Friday, McEnany said Trump “did not just learn about Juneteenth this week. That’s simply not true,” she said.
McEnany would not say whether the President plans to make Juneteenth a federal holiday.
This story has been updated with additional developments.
CNN’s Kay Jones and Hollie Silverman contributed to this report.