As U.S. President Donald Trump’s re-election campaign rolled west to Arizona on Tuesday and goes on to Wisconsin on Thursday, he is dismissing growing concerns about a spreading coronavirus.
“Not worried at all,” he said in an interview with Scripps news, Washington. “We watch it, we’re very careful.”
But there’ll be no rallies in Arizona and Wisconsin, just speeches as the campaign team still struggles to explain what happened Saturday in Tulsa, Okla.
Eight members of his team tested positive for the coronavirus, including Secret Service personnel. Thousands of empty blue seats in Tulsa’s BOK centre dominated the news cycle. An outside overflow area was quickly dismantled Saturday night.
Leaving for Arizona Tuesday, Trump brushed off the low turnout, saying the TV audience was huge.
“As you’ve probably heard, Fox has the highest ratings on a Saturday night in the history of Fox. So that’s the ultimate poll, I guess,” he said.
After a pause demanded by the coronavirus, Trump is trying to rev the campaign up again, but he’s been wounded politically.
The Trump team broke a simple rule of managing expectations with the Great American Comeback rally. Instead of underpromise and overdeliver, they did the opposite.
“One million people request tickets for the Saturday night rally in Tulsa,” Trump said on Twitter the morning of the event.
At best 12,000 showed up, at worst 6,000, depending on whose numbers you trust.
Trump blames protesters
Trump won every county in Oklahoma in 2016, and the state by more than 30 points, yet Republicans could have been sending him a message Saturday: They don’t want to risk their health or they’re not as enamoured with the candidate as they once were or maybe a combination of both.
Trump blamed “bad people outside,” referring to protesters. He said the Democrats and demonstrators “will do anything to stop us,” and told the crowd Saturday night that an unnamed law enforcement official said: “Sir, it’s too dangerous for you to be outside.”
But there is no evidence protesters blocked entry to the BOK centre. Only one person was arrested early in the day, a 62-year-old Catholic teacher, Sheila Buck of Tulsa, whom CBC videotaped being handcuffed and dragged to a police car at the behest of Trump campaign security.
WATCH: A teacher is arrested before the Trump rally in Tulsa:
The relaunch rally was vexing for Team Trump, but still thrilling for southern Republicans who did go, bursting with pentup excitement and unbridled loyalty.
“The United States of America is going one way or the other,” said Josette McWhirt, who was wearing a bejewelled Trump cowboy hat as she sat in a front row at the Tulsa centre.
“If we keep President Trump in office, it’s going to get better. If we don’t, we’re in big trouble,” she said.
Like a stump speech
Trump drummed that theme over an hour and 40 minutes, in what sounded like his 2020 campaign stump speech.
“If Joe Biden becomes president, they’ll launch a full-scale attack on American life,” he said, relating a list of things he said the Democrats would steal away: guns, freedoms, and most of all, the protection of conservative judges in U.S. courts.
They “will expel anyone who disagrees with them, they call you a racist, they don’t like religion … they want to take away your guns,” he said, to one of the biggest cheers of the evening.
Lined up the morning of the Tulsa rally, Phillip Turmel of Kansas said that appointing U.S. Supreme Court judges and building the wall were the two promises most important to him.
He praised Trump. “He’s kept his promises to the best of his ability and keeping your promises is a very rare thing in American politics.”
Supporters welcome Trump’s pressure
Many supporters said Trump’s pressure to reopen the country is welcomed, even as COVID-19 cases spike in nearly half the states in a rolling seven-day average. They include Arizona, where cases have jumped 30 per cent as Trump met students Tuesday at the Dream City Church in Phoenix.
“Science has come out to show this coronavirus is a lot less deadly [than] people thought it was going to be. I think the numbers are overblown and data will show that in the end,” said Jason Yeadon, one of the first in line for the Tulsa rally.
“I really don’t think we should’ve shut the economy down [until] we had more data.”
Trump “just says what he says and doesn’t allow the media to bash him into submission,” said Yeadon. “He sticks to his guns.”
In spite of Trump’s pernicious habit of falsehoods, keeping fact-checkers busy, many of his most ardent supporters cite his “honesty” as his most admirable quality.
“He’s the most honest president in American history in my opinion,” said Brett Morrison, who was holding a large Trump banner.
“I’m not against the media,” said Morrison, who was spotted loudly booing and giving a thumbs-down to the media on cue from the president during his speech.
“I’m just for the truth … if you start reporting the truth, you’ll have so many people behind you.”
WATCH: A Trump supporter boos the media:
But Trump heads into the last 134 days of the 2020 campaign trailing Joe Biden by more than 10 points in recent polls.
Democrats raised more money in May than Republicans for campaign coffers even as Biden continues to rally support largely virtually, from his home.
Biden took a drubbing Saturday night, with Trump trotting out his derogatory nickname “sleepy Joe Biden” and questioning Biden’s mental stability at least half a dozen times, suggesting that he “doesn’t know where he is,” “confuses his wife for his sister,” and is only a “puppet” of the “lunatic” left wing of the Democratic Party.
“If the Democrats gain power, then the rioters will be in charge and no one will be safe and no one will have control,” Trump said. “Joe Biden is a helpless puppet of the radical left.”
Former U.S. president Barack Obama’s election strategist, David Axelrod, said the president’s message in a line was “the nation is besieged by radical mobs and Biden is their puppet.”
“This is Trump’s problem. Biden is culturally inconvenient. He is not scary enough to voters Trump needs to scare. So his alternative line is that Biden is the puppet of scary people.”
Sources have told White House reporters at the Washington Post and the New York Times that the Tulsa rally was, in part, orchestrated to improve the president’s mood, that he is increasingly irritated and feeling caged after months of pandemic quarantine.
However, one disappointing rally does not portend election defeat. In 2016, polling and many media failed to capture the strength of those who were committed to vote for Trump but not shouting it from the rooftops or confiding that to pollsters.
The White House said 7.7 million people watched the Tulsa rally on Fox TV, “a big number,” with no embarrassing close-ups of seating in the upper levels.
Trump started his rally Saturday saying “the silent majority is stronger than ever before.”
George Allen of Tulsa, who was wearing a Trump Sequel T-shirt, said Trump would win in a landslide.
He was one of a small group of Black Republicans attending the rally.
“There’s a lot more Black people like me,” Allen said. “They’re afraid to come out right now because of the things going on, they’ll be attacked on social media, attacked in their businesses, but there’s thousands and thousands of Black people who are going to vote for Donald Trump.”
But the future of his signature rallies is unclear. He may not be concerned about spreading the virus, his critics say. What worries him most is a repeat of empty seats.