U.S. President Donald Trump launched his comeback rally Saturday by defining the upcoming election as a stark choice between national heritage and left-wing radicalism. But his intended show of political force amid a pandemic featured thousands of empty seats and new coronavirus cases on his own campaign staff.
Trump ignored health warnings to hold his first rally in 110 days — one of the largest indoor gatherings in the world during a coronavirus outbreak that has killed more than 120,000 Americans and put 40 million out of work. The rally was meant to restart his reelection effort less than five months before the president faces voters again.
“The choice in 2020 is very simple,” Trump said. “Do you want to bow before the left-wing mob, or do you want to stand up tall and proud as Americans?”
Trump unleashed months of pent-up grievances about the coronavirus, which he dubbed the “Kung flu,” a racist term for COVID-19, which originated in China. He also tried to defend his handling of the pandemic, even as cases continue to surge in many states, including Oklahoma.
He complained that robust coronavirus testing was making his record look bad — and suggested the testing effort should slow down.
“Here’s the bad part. When you do testing to that extent, you’re going to find more cases,” he said. “So I said to my people, ‘Slow the testing down.’ They test and they test.”
“Speed up the testing,” Trump’s Democratic opponent, Joe Biden, tweeted later.
In the hours before the rally, crowds were significantly lighter than expected, and campaign officials scrapped plans for Trump to address an overflow space outdoors. When Trump thundered that “the silent majority is stronger than ever before,” about a third of the seats at his indoor rally were empty.
Trump tried to explain away the crowd size by blaming the media for scaring people and by insisting there were protesters outside who were “doing bad things.” But the small crowds of pre-rally demonstrators were largely peaceful, and Tulsa police reported just one arrest Saturday afternoon.
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Before the rally, Trump’s campaign revealed that six staff members who were helping set up for the event had tested positive for the coronavirus. Campaign communications director Tim Murtaugh said neither the affected staffers nor anyone who was in immediate contact with them would attend the event.
The president raged to aides that the staffers’ positive cases had been made public, according to two White House and campaign officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to speak publicly about private conversations.