TULSA, Okla. — President Donald Trump’s first rally in months, intended as a triumphant return to the campaign trail after the coronavirus forced nationwide lockdowns, began with a fizzle on Saturday night as the enormous crowds he anticipated in Tulsa failed to materialize.
Although some hardcore supporters camped out for days for a spot, there were empty seats throughout the upper decks of the downtown arena when Trump took the stage.
“We begin! We begin our campaign,” Trump said at the beginning of his speech. He called the crowd “warriors” for defying the “fake news” to attend his rally.
The Trump campaign tried to boost turnout at the last minute, sending out a text message saying “there’s still space,” but to no avail.
Trump also canceled an earlier speech at an outdoor event where there was supposed to be an overflow crowd of thousands. Instead, there were only a few dozen, and workers began dismantling the expensive stage around the time the president landed in Tulsa.
Tim Murtaugh, a campaign spokesman, claimed that “protesters interfered with supporters, even blocking access to the metal detectors.” But police on site said the entrance was blocked only briefly and no one was denied entry.
The sagging turnout in the deep-red state of Oklahoma may be a red flag for Trump’s reelection campaign, which is trailing by nearly double digits to Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee.
It’s also a blow to a president who counts on the adulation from faithful crowds. Trump has been eager to start holding rallies again after months of being cooped up in the White House as the coronavirus made public gatherings unsafe. Before Saturday, he had promised a “wild night.”
But there was relief in some corners of Tulsa that more people didn’t show up. Public health officials have feared that a tightly packed arena would supercharge the spread of the virus, especially with many of Trump’s supporters downplaying the threat of the pandemic and declining to wear masks.
There were also hopes that the city would be spared the violence that some feared as protesters and Trump supporters descended on downtown.
There was still some tension outside the arena, especially as police in riot gear stood by as two men — one Black and one white — began fighting.
Earlier, about 30 protesters approached a security gate at the edge of the arena’s outdoor rally area, chanting slogans popular with the left-wing movement known as antifa and carrying anti-Trump signs and a banner that said, “Revolution Nothing Less.”
They were surrounded by a group of Trump supporters, who recorded them on cellphones and chanted “USA!”
Trump risks inflaming racial tensions with his rally at a time when protests have swept across the country over the killing last month by a white Minneapolis police officer of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man.
Tulsa was the site of a race massacre in 1921, and Black community leaders have called Trump’s visit an insensitive provocation, especially because it falls on the weekend of Juneteenth, an annual commemoration of the end of slavery.
Across town from the arena, in the historically Black Greenwood district, the site of the 1921 massacre, activists covered memorials and murals ahead of an expected visit by Vice President Mike Pence.
“We don’t want him using our monuments for a photo op,” said Tyrance Billingsley III, 24, a local entrepreneur. He said the Trump administration was not welcome and is “100% diametrically opposed to what Greenwood stands for.”
Tykebrean “Ty” Cheshire organized a Rally Against Hate on Saturday evening and said she is expecting more than a thousand people, based on Facebook RSVPs. The rally is being staged at a park on the other side of the city to avoid conflict with Trump supporters.
“We’ve just got to keep it peaceful and not stress out,” Cheshire said, noting that she had heard from police that white supremacist groups were in town, including the Ku Klux Klan, Proud Boys and followers of the “boogaloo” movement.
“Hopefully they just want to listen to their man speak today and they won’t target us,” Cheshire said, noting that organizers had nevertheless planned a quick exit route from the park in case of trouble.
Trump has appeared untroubled and even energized by the prospect of chaos in the streets, a scene that could bolster his calls for “law and order.”
“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,” Trump tweeted Friday. “It will be a much different scene!”
Crowds gathered Saturday morning at the arena’s entrance gate, including Don Engle, the treasurer of neighboring Creek County.
“We’re real excited,” Engle said as he queued with his wife near the gate, where they had waited on and off for days. “I don’t think there’s any controversy at all. He’s picked us because we were the best at opening back up. That’s why we got this honor — that’s what it is, it’s not a problem, it’s an honor.”
Some said they were worried about COVID-19 and brought masks, which were also being sold outside the rally, along with face shields and hand sanitizer. But most said they did not intend to wear masks inside unless it was required.
“It was important to me to support what I believe in. I’m not going to let a bunch of people tell me I can’t do something. We’re still in a free country,” said Janet Arnold, 64, a massage therapist who drove to the rally from Bolivar, Mo., and described herself as “a gun-toting grandma.”
Oklahoma was among the first states to reopen in April and has remained open even as COVID-19 cases have increased dramatically in recent weeks.
On Saturday, Trump’s campaign said six staff members helping set up for his rally had tested positive for the coronavirus.
It’s been more than three months since Trump’s last rally. He’s returning to the campaign trail after a cascade of setbacks in recent weeks, including Supreme Court decisions overturning his administration’s policies and the pending release of a searing book by John Bolton, his former national security adviser.
Trump became involved in a new controversy Friday night when Attorney General William Barr announced that Geoffrey Berman, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York who has led investigations of Trump’s allies, was resigning. But Berman said he would not step down until the Senate approved a permanent replacement, creating a standoff over one of the most powerful posts in the Justice Department.
Coronavirus cases are also rising again in many parts of the country, raising the prospect of another surge in deaths and a return to the kinds of lockdowns that have forced tens of millions out of work.
Trump trails Biden, the former vice president and presumptive Democratic nominee, by nearly 9 percentage points in an average of polls compiled by Real Clear Politics.
“My campaign hasn’t started yet. It starts on Saturday night in Oklahoma!” Trump tweeted Friday.
Local public health officials urged Trump to cancel the rally, which creates a confluence of risk factors for contracting the disease — extended periods of time indoors and people chanting or cheering in close proximity to one another.
“I know so many people are over COVID, but COVID is not over,” said Bruce Dart, executive director of the Tulsa Health Department.
The president’s campaign had attendees sign a waiver pledging not to sue if they get sick from the event.