By the time President Donald Trump was gliding in his helicopter toward Joint Base Andrews on Saturday, destined for what he’d once hoped would be a triumphant packed-to-the-rafters return to the campaign trail, things were already looking bad.
Scanning cable news coverage earlier in the day, Trump was disappointed to see pictures not of massive lines forming outside the Bank of Oklahoma Center in Tulsa but of Geoffrey Berman, the federal prosecutor Trump’s attorney general had attempted unsuccessfully to dismiss the night before, a person familiar with his response said.
Hours later, the President was informed six campaign staffers in Tulsa had tested positive for coronavirus ahead of his scheduled arrival – an unfortunate reminder of an ongoing pandemic Trump’s critics say he is ignoring. After initially dismissing the revelation, a source familiar with his reaction said Trump erupted when it was subsequently reported in the media – overtaking coverage of the rally itself.
Still, a determined Trump was intent on breathing new life into his staggering campaign. He took off for Tulsa, convinced large swaths of his supporters would be waiting for him there.
Things did not improve once Air Force One lifted off. The President received a report that only about 25 people were assembled in the overflow space the campaign had reserved for a crowd Trump claimed five days earlier would top 40,000.
Two hours before the rally was set to begin, people who had signed up for tickets received an urgent text message from the Trump campaign: “The Great American Comeback Celebration’s almost here!” it read. “There’s still space!”
When the President landed in Tulsa at 5:51 p.m. local time, the crowds his aides had promised him had failed to materialize. Air Force One flew over the arena, where Trump had been told thousands of supporters would be waiting to hear from him before he went inside, but saw nothing resembling the sea of people he’d been expecting.
While he was in the air, the campaign had canceled the outside appearance given the apparent lack of enthusiasm.
Once viewed inside the White House and Trump’s campaign as a reset button for a presidency beset by crises and self-inflicted wounds, Saturday evening’s campaign rally in Tulsa instead became plagued with pitfalls, a disappointing microcosm of the blindspots, denial and wishful thinking that have come to guide the President as he enters one of the most precarious moments of his first term.
By the time he strode out to the strains of Lee Greenwood on Saturday evening into a partially-full Bank of Oklahoma Center, the event had devolved from a triumphant return to the campaign trail after a 110-day pandemic-forced absence into something else altogether. The launch of a new assault on former Vice President Joe Biden fizzled, replaced by recycled grievances and race-baiting. The sparse crowd was a reminder that many Americans, even Trump’s supporters, remain cautious of a pandemic that continues to rage in places like Oklahoma, where cases are spiking, even if Trump is ready to move on.
Aides were anxiously awaiting his response to a less-than-stellar turnout, aware he has threatened to fire officials in the past when his rallies ended in disappointment.
“You are warriors. We had some very bad people outside. They were doing bad things. But I really do appreciate it,” Trump told his crowd, appearing to explain away the empty seats as a result of “thugs” outside the arena, even though CNN teams on the ground said they did not see violence or people blocking entrances.
After a nearly two-hour speech notable mainly for its discursiveness, Trump left Tulsa on Saturday night having spent around three hours in the city. The six advance staffers who had tested positive for coronavirus remained in their chain hotel rooms, quarantined for the foreseeable future.
Disappointment in the making
From nearly the moment the word “Tulsa” slipped from Trump’s mouth two Wednesdays ago, things seemed to start going south.
First there was the problem with the rally’s date, which the President changed begrudgingly after learning it coincided with Juneteenth – the holiday commemorating the end of slavery in the United States. The new slot, he complained, would draw fewer viewers.
Then there was the location, which Trump did not view as a problem even though plenty of others around him were wary of riling a city with a violent racist history in the middle of a national racial reckoning.
The notion of packing supporters into a crowded arena amid a resurgence in coronavirus cases was always going to be an issue – but half-a-dozen staffers on the advance team testing positive was a wrinkle Trump had not anticipated when he insisted a rally be placed on his schedule.
By the middle of May, Trump had begun quizzing aides when he might be able to return to the campaign rallies that have long been one of the few aspects of being a politician he enjoys.
Confined to the White House for months amid a pandemic that had caused a once-hot economy to ice over, Trump repeatedly asked that a rally be put on the calendar, even as public health officials warned against large gatherings.
For weeks, Trump’s requests for a rally were put off or slow-walked, with the health warnings as rationale. While the administration’s top public health experts – including Doctors Anthony Fauci and Deborah Birx – did not weigh in specifically on campaign rallies, their views of resuming large gatherings were well known among Trump’s staffers.
But as large protests began forming after the death of George Floyd, the Black man who died after a White police officer knelt on his neck, the arguments against convening a rally seemed harder to make – particularly to the President, who said if protesters could gather in large numbers, then so could his supporters.
With Trump more intent than ever on returning to the trail, his senior campaign team scrambled to identify a location that could both guarantee a large crowd and provide a cooperative governor and mayor who would allow a major gathering of people – potentially indoors – to proceed, despite continued warnings against such events by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Tulsa appeared at first glance to fit the bill. Oklahoma had experienced relatively low numbers of coronavirus infections, and drawing a major crowd in the deep-red state did not seem like it would be an issue.
While many of the President’s allies believed he should focus only on those states that he won in 2016 but that he now appears at risk of losing in November – like Michigan, Arizona, Florida and several others – Oklahoma seemed a safer bet for a rally that was quickly assuming oversized importance, both in the West Wing and at campaign headquarters.
Though Trump formally launched his campaign one year ago in Orlando, he started telling people in recent weeks that the Tulsa event was the “real launch.” He reasoned that his abysmal poll numbers were only because of the coronavirus lockdowns, and posited on several occasions that he hasn’t been trying to run against Biden yet.
The rally came the same day the Trump campaign announced it had raised $74 million in May in conjunction with the Republican National Committee – $7 million less than what Biden and the Democratic National Committee raised.
Return to normal
For many advisers, particularly those who worked on the President’s 2016 campaign, the rally was regarded as a return to normal after what has been one of his roughest stretches of his presidency.
“The rally is a great signal to the rest of the country that it’s time to get things moving again,” Tim Murtaugh, Trump’s campaign communications director, told CNN last week. “Americans will now see the contrast between the President’s record of accomplishment versus the history of failure Biden brings to the table.”
But nearly as soon as Trump announced his rally from the White House Cabinet Room – “a beautiful, new venue – brand-new – and we’re looking forward to it,” he said – the problems began.
Upon advice from lawyers, the campaign applied a liability waiver to the online sign-up form for potential attendees, warning “you and any guests voluntarily assume all risks related to exposure to COVID-19.”
Neither Trump nor his campaign aides were aware that the date they’d selected coincided with Juneteenth. Even after the date was pointed out, some of Trump’s campaign aides and White House staffers downplayed any problems, insisting it wasn’t unusual to hold campaign events on holidays.
But this June 19 was not like past years. Amid a national outpouring of grief and anger following Floyd’s death, the holiday had assumed a special significance in highlighting the country’s racist history as millions continue to protest that history’s legacy and still-existent consequences.
After a Black Secret Service agent explained the significance to the President - and after Trump polled his orbit to find no one who had heard of Juneteenth – the President began to consider changing the date. He also heard directly from Sen. James Lankford, an Oklahoma Republican, who told him a date-change would be wise.
Trump agreed, but told his campaign advisers to schedule the rally the day before Juneteenth, a Thursday, rather than move the rally a day later to Saturday. Trump explained that Saturday evenings were a television ratings void and that he wanted massive viewership of his first campaign foray in months.
Instead, Trump’s aides convinced him that a weekend would draw a larger crowd because potential attendees would not be at work. And the campaign announced it was scouting outdoor venues to accommodate an overflow audience unable to fit inside the 19,000-capacity BOK Center.
For the past week, the rally has consumed Trump’s attention, according to people familiar with the matter. The President invited Oklahoma’s governor to the White House on Thursday for a roundtable that was also a venue for Trump to hype his event.
“We’re going to be in Oklahoma. And it’s a crowd like, I guess, nobody’s seen before. We have tremendous, tremendous requests for tickets like, I think, probably has never happened politically before,” Trump said. Later, during the same event, Trump appeared to be idly scrolling through his phone while two women business owners detailed their experience during the pandemic.
On Friday, with no events on his schedule, Trump appeared to be focused on the next day’s rally. He threatened potential protesters on Twitter, saying they would not be afforded gentle treatment if they came to his event. Upon learning there would be a curfew in place on the three nights surrounding the rally, Trump phoned Tulsa’s mayor to protest. Trump tweeted afterward the mayor had agreed to rescind the curfew for his supporters who were camped outside.
By the time he awoke on Saturday, Trump was enthusiastic about the evening ahead. But he soured when he turned on his television to find coverage not of massive crowds but of Berman, whose dismissal Trump did not anticipate would generate controversy and whose refusal to leave impeded upon coverage of the President’s forthcoming rally.
Hours later – as Vice President Mike Pence was stalled on his way to Tulsa while thunderstorms rolled over Joint Base Andrews – Trump learned of the six staffers who had tested positive for coronavirus while they were advancing the President’s rally. The campaign had initially not planned to test staff beforehand unless it was expected they would come into contact with the President, Vice President or one of his children, and was not planning to reveal that several staffers had tested positive. But the news leaked, and several campaign staffers found out about the cases from media reports, one of those officials told CNN.
Trump was furious when it was reported that several staffers had tested positive, believing it – like Berman – was overshadowing his event, the person said. By the time he was departing the White House for Tulsa, the jubilant resumption of rallies was already turning to resentment.
If there was one glimmer of light, it was the crowd.
“The event in Oklahoma is unbelievable. The crowds are unbelievable. They haven’t seen anything like it,” Trump said as he departed the South Lawn in Washington, DC.
It was a different story in Tulsa. The wide avenue where a stage had been erected for an overflow crowd in the tens of thousands was virtually vacant, and planned speeches there by Trump and Pence were scrapped. Inside the arena, it was only partly full as the President was arriving.
Murtaugh asserted that the smaller-than-expected crowds were partially a result of interference by protesters, though none of the CNN reporters and producers on the ground in Tulsa saw any incident with protesters trying to block supporters from attending.
Ultimately, aides said Tulsa was about something far more important than mere politicking; after a dreary stretch, the event was meant to provide Trump the adulation he craves and to re-energize him after weeks spent wallowing in sagging poll numbers and critical media coverage.
Trump told staff he wanted all of his surrogates on-hand when he landed in Tulsa on Saturday night, so aides invited dozens and chartered a private plane to transport them all. Photos from the flight show none wearing masks.
“I guarantee you after Saturday, if everything goes well, he’s going to be in a much better mood,” a Trump political adviser said. “He believes that he needs to be out there fighting and he feeds off the energy of the crowds.”
After Trump finished speaking, a person familiar told CNN that two Secret Service agents had also tested positive for coronavirus.