TULSA, Okla. — President Donald Trump’s attempt to revive his re-election campaign sputtered badly Saturday night as he traveled to Tulsa for his first mass rally in months and found a far smaller crowd than his aides had promised him, then delivered a disjointed speech that did not address the multiple crises facing the nation or scandals battering him in Washington.
The weakness of Trump’s drawing power and political skills, in a state that voted for him overwhelmingly and in a format that he favors, raised new questions about his electoral prospects for a second term at a time when his poll numbers were already falling. And rather than speak to the wide cross-section of Americans who say they are concerned about police violence and systemic racism, he continued to use racist language, describing the coronavirus as “Kung Flu.”
While the president’s campaign had claimed that more than 1 million people had sought tickets for the rally, the 19,000-seat BOK Center was at least one-third empty during the rally. A second, outdoor venue was so sparsely attended that he and Vice President Mike Pence both canceled appearances there.
Tim Murtaugh, a spokesman for the Trump campaign, falsely blamed the small numbers on “radical protesters” and the news media who he said had frightened away supporters. But there were few protests in the area and no sizable effort to block entrances, and there was a strong security presence.
Some users of social media said Saturday night that teenagers helped keep attendance down by seeking tickets they did not intend to use.
The disappointing turnout came as Trump already found himself under siege about his sudden firing of the U.S. attorney in Manhattan and his losing legal battle over the release of a memoir full of damaging revelations by John Bolton, his former national security adviser. And in Tulsa, Trump faced criticism for ignoring pleas from officials about health risks to rallygoers and restarting his “Make America Great Again!” rallies in a city where a white mob massacred hundreds of Black residents 99 years ago.
In rambling, grievance-filled remarks, Trump made no reference to the Tulsa massacre of 1921 or to George Floyd, whose death at the hands of a white police officer in Minneapolis last month spurred global demands for racial justice. He also did not mention Juneteenth, which marks the end of slavery in the United States and fell just a day before his rally.
Instead, the president railed about “left-wing radicals” who he falsely claimed were rioting in cities across the country and praised police officers who “get injured, they don’t complain. They’re incredible” while attempting to stop looters and rioters.
The president shrugged off the threat from the coronavirus, which he also called the “Chinese virus” at one point, and bragged that he had done “a phenomenal job” fighting the pandemic. He acknowledged that increased testing for the virus revealed more cases of infection, which he felt made the country look bad.
“So I said to my people, ‘Slow the testing down,’” he said.
Many of the thousands of Trump supporters at the rally did not wear masks or stand 6 feet apart — health precautions that Trump himself has ignored.
Minor confrontations between protesters and Trump supporters broke out throughout the evening. A few minutes before Trump began speaking, several dozen protesters marched about a block away from the entrance to the arena, bearing signs with messages like “Black Lives Matter” and “Go home Donald.”
Trump supporters yelled “USA! USA!” as they walked by. “Go home, racists!” the protesters chanted as the crowd swelled to hundreds of people. Some heated conversations broke out along Boulder Avenue in downtown Tulsa, but when one man tried to start an “all lives matter” chant as a man in a Black Lives Matter shirt spoke, it did not catch on.