President Trump says ‘left-wing mob is trying to vandalize our history’

President Donald Trump is looking to reenergize his campaign Saturday in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Credit: Patrick Semansky

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President Donald Trump is looking to reenergize his campaign Saturday in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Credit: Patrick Semansky

Credit: Patrick Semansky

President Donald Trump ignored health warnings and pressed ahead Saturday with a comeback rally in the midst of a pandemic, but what was meant to be a show of defiant political force was instead met with thousands of empty seats and new coronavirus cases on his own campaign staff.

»RELATED: Trump boasts about his impact on popularizing Juneteenth

Trump unleashed months of pent-up grievances, accusing the media of favoring his Democratic opponent Joe Biden and defending his handling of the pandemic, which he dubbed the “Kung flu,” a term for the virus that many consider to be racist.

Trump also spent more than 10 minutes — with the crowd laughing along — trying to explain away a pair of odd images from his speech last weekend at West Point, blaming his slippery leather-soled shoes for video of him walking awkwardly down a ramp as he left the podium. And then he declared that he used two hands to drink a cup of water — another image that went viral — because he didn’t want to spill water on his tie.

But Trump also leaned in hard on cultural issues, including the push to tear down statues and rename military bases named after Confederate generals in the wake of nationwide protests about racial injustice.

"The unhinged left-wing mob is trying to vandalize our history, desecrate our monuments, our beautiful monuments. Tear down our statues, and punish, cancel and persecute anyone who does not conform to their demands for absolute and total control," Trump said. "They want to demolish our heritage so they can impose their new repressive regime in its place."
The president told the crowd "we should have legislation that if somebody wants to burn the American flag ... they go to jail for one year," according to reporter Hunter Walker.

Trump said COVID-19 “gets further and further away from China, as opposed to calling it the Chinese virus,” according to reporter Patsy Widakuswara.

The president also said he told advisers to “slow the testing down, please” for COVID-19, according to reporter Kyle Griffin. “When you do testing to that extent, you’re going to find more people, you’re going to find more cases. So I said to my people, ‘slow the testing down, please.’ They test and they test,” Trump said, according  to Griffin.

Trump also mentioned that he negotiated with Boeing about the costs for a new Air Force One, according to reporter Sara A. Carter.
"... you gotta have a three on the front of it," Carter quoted the president as saying. "I'm not paying 5 billion."

The rally in Oklahoma was intended to be the largest indoor gathering in the world during the outbreak that has killed more than 120,000 Americans, put 40 million more out of work and upended Trump’s reelection bid. But in the hours before the event, crowds seemed significantly lighter than expected. Campaign officials scrapped plans for Trump to first address an overflow space.

Huge swaths of empty seats remained in the downtown arena after Trump took the stage.

Trump tried to explain away the crowd size, blaming it on the media for declaring “don't go, don't come, don’t do anything” while insisting there were protesters outside “doing bad things,” though the small crowds of pre-rally demonstrators were largely peaceful.

"We begin our campaign," Trump thundered. "The silent majority is stronger than ever before."
That came on the heels of the campaign revealing that six staff members who were helping set up for the event had tested positive for the virus. Campaign communications director Tim Murtaugh said that "quarantine procedures were immediately implemented," and that neither the affected staffers nor anyone who was in immediate contact with them would attend the event.
Trump supporters filled the streets Saturday around the Tulsa arena where the president was holding his first rally in months, ready to welcome him back to the campaign trail despite warnings from health officials about the coronavirus and the possibility of conflicts with protesters.

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President Donald Trump supporters cheer Eric Trump, the son of President Donald Trump, before a Trump campaign rally in Tulsa, Okla., Saturday, June 20, 2020. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)

Credit: Sue Ogrocki

President Donald Trump supporters cheer Eric Trump, the son of President Donald Trump, before a Trump campaign rally in Tulsa, Okla., Saturday, June 20, 2020. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)

Credit: Sue Ogrocki

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President Donald Trump supporters cheer Eric Trump, the son of President Donald Trump, before a Trump campaign rally in Tulsa, Okla., Saturday, June 20, 2020. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)

Credit: Sue Ogrocki

Credit: Sue Ogrocki

Many of the president's supporters weren't wearing masks, despite the recommendation of public health officials to keep the coronavirus from spreading. Some had been camped near the venue since early in the week.

Thousands of people filled the downtown streets Saturday, including a large group of Black Lives Matter protesters who chanted and marched, occasionally getting into shouting matches with Trump supporters who chanted, “all lives matter.”

The protesters blocked traffic in at least one intersection. Some Black leaders in Tulsa have said they're worried the visit could lead to violence. It is happening amid protests over racial injustice and policing across the U.S. and in a city that has a long history of racial tension. Officials said they expected some 100,000 people in Tulsa's downtown.
Kieran Mullen, 60, a college professor from Norman, Oklahoma, held a sign that read, "Black Lives Matter" and "Dump Trump."

“I just thought it was important for people to see there are Oklahomans that have a different point of view,” Mullen said of his state, which overwhelmingly supported Trump in 2016.

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Trump supporters and opponents clash at Fourth and Denver a few blocks away from the BOK Center before President Trump's planned rally, Saturday, June 20, 2020 in Tulsa, Okla. (Mike Simons/Tulsa World via AP)

Credit: Mike Simons

Trump supporters and opponents clash at Fourth and Denver a few blocks away from the BOK Center before President Trump's planned rally, Saturday, June 20, 2020 in Tulsa, Okla. (Mike Simons/Tulsa World via AP)

Credit: Mike Simons

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Trump supporters and opponents clash at Fourth and Denver a few blocks away from the BOK Center before President Trump's planned rally, Saturday, June 20, 2020 in Tulsa, Okla. (Mike Simons/Tulsa World via AP)

Credit: Mike Simons

Credit: Mike Simons

Brian Bernard, 54, a retired information technology worker from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, sported a Trump 2020 hat as he took a break from riding his bicycle around downtown Tulsa. Next to him was a woman selling Trump T-shirts and hats, flying a “Keep America Great Again” flag. Her shirt said, “Impeach this,” with an image of Trump extending his middle fingers.

“Since the media won’t do it, it’s up to us to show our support,” said Bernard, who drove nine hours to Tulsa for his second Trump rally. “Before I went to a Trump rally in 2015, I was pretty much on the fence. That really hooked me. I really felt he was genuine.”

Bernard said he wasn’t concerned about catching the coronavirus at the event and doesn’t believe it’s “anything worse than the flu.”

Across the street, armed, uniformed highway patrol troopers milled about a staging area in a bank parking lot with dozens of uniformed National Guard troops.

Tulsa has seen cases of COVID-19 spike in the last week, and the local health department director asked that the rally be postponed. But Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt said it would be safe. The Oklahoma Supreme Court on Friday denied a request that everyone attending the indoor rally wear a mask, and few in the crowd outside Saturday were wearing them.

The Trump campaign said six staff members helping prepare for the event tested positive for COVID-19. They were following "quarantine procedures" and wouldn't attend the rally, said Murtaugh.

Inside the barriers, the campaign was handing out masks and said hand sanitizer also would be distributed and that participants would undergo a temperature check. But there was no requirement that participants use the masks.

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Scott Hilliard, left, argues with Black Lives Matter protester Eugene Smith ahead of President Donald Trump's campaign rally in Tulsa, Okla. Saturday, June 20, 2020. (Mike Simons/Tulsa World via AP)

Credit: Mike Simons

Scott Hilliard, left, argues with Black Lives Matter protester Eugene Smith ahead of President Donald Trump's campaign rally in Tulsa, Okla. Saturday, June 20, 2020. (Mike Simons/Tulsa World via AP)

Credit: Mike Simons

caption arrowCaption
Scott Hilliard, left, argues with Black Lives Matter protester Eugene Smith ahead of President Donald Trump's campaign rally in Tulsa, Okla. Saturday, June 20, 2020. (Mike Simons/Tulsa World via AP)

Credit: Mike Simons

Credit: Mike Simons

Teams of people wearing goggles, masks, gloves and blue gowns were checking the temperatures of those entering the rally area. Those who entered the secured area were given disposable masks, which most people wore as they went through the temperature check. Some took them off after the check.

The rally originally was planned for Friday but was moved after complaints that it coincided with Juneteenth, which marks the end of slavery in the U.S., and in a city that was the site of a 1921 race-related massacre, when a white mob attacked Blacks, leaving as many as 300 people dead.

Stitt said he would join Vice President Mike Pence for a meeting Saturday with Black leaders from Tulsa's Greenwood District, the area where the 1921 attack occurred. Stitt initially invited Trump to tour the area, but said, “We talked to the African American community and they said it would not be a good idea, so we asked the president not to do that."

Previous coverage

Pressing ahead in a pandemic, Trump looked to reverse a decline in his political fortunes Saturday by returning to the format that has so often energized him and his loyal supporters: a raucous, no-holds-barred rally before tens of thousands of ardent fans, this time in Tulsa.

The rally was shaping up to be one of the biggest indoor events in the U.S. since large gatherings were shut down in March because of the coronavirus, and it was scheduled over the protests of local health officials and as COVID-19 cases spike in many states. The event was expected to draw crowds of protesters to the area as well.

It has been more than three months since the nation last saw a Trump rally. The unemployment rate stood at about 3.5% that March 2. The number of coronavirus cases in the U.S. was estimated at 91. “Our country is stronger than ever before,” Trump declared.

Now the unemployment rate stands at 13.3%, based on the most recent monthly report. The number of confirmed coronavirus cases has soared to about 2.2 million. The number of deaths reported in the U.S. has surpassed 119,000. Outrage over the criminal justice system's treatment of minorities following the death of George Floyd and other African Americans has spawned protests around the nation. Only about a quarter of Americans say the country is headed in the right direction.

Trump understands the stakes and was determined to return to his signature campaign events. He dismissed complaints that bringing together throngs for an indoor rally risked spreading the coronavirus as nothing more than politics.

“Big crowds and lines already forming in Tulsa. My campaign hasn’t started yet. It starts on Saturday night in Oklahoma!” Trump tweeted Friday.

Trump’s visit has also raised fears of clashes between protesters and Trump supporters. Officials expect a crowd of 100,000 people or more in downtown Tulsa. Trump is scheduled to speak inside the BOK Center at about 8 p.m. EDT at his rally, as well as at an outdoor stage. But his audience also will be voters in battleground states such as Georgia, Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Florida.

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People walk along Greenwood Avenue on Friday in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where the words "Black Lives Matter" were painted on the road as people mark Juneteenth.

Credit: Sue Ogrocki

People walk along Greenwood Avenue on Friday in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where the words "Black Lives Matter" were painted on the road as people mark Juneteenth.

Credit: Sue Ogrocki

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People walk along Greenwood Avenue on Friday in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where the words "Black Lives Matter" were painted on the road as people mark Juneteenth.

Credit: Sue Ogrocki

Credit: Sue Ogrocki

Republican strategist Alex Conant said the rally gives the president a chance to reset his campaign after a couple of tough months.

“The Tulsa rally is trying to ignite some momentum in a campaign that’s been going nowhere,” Conant said. “When you look at the polls and then you look at the calendar, you realize he has to do something to try to reframe the election.”

The events in Tulsa will go a long way to determining how the campaign plays out in coming months. A success lays the groundwork for Trump to take his show to states that will determine the presidential election. A spike in coronavirus cases coming out of Tulsa would make his reception in those states more contentious. The campaign said it will hand out masks and hand sanitizer, but there is no requirement that participants use them. Participants will also undergo a temperature check.

The president’s campaign views his rallies as critical to his success. They elevate the enthusiasm level of his supporters and often lead them to donate, knock on doors and make phone calls on the president’s behalf.

Trump has generally held his campaign rallies in swing states or in Democratic-leaning states such as Colorado or New Mexico that he hopes to flip this November. Oklahoma fits none of those categories. The last Democratic candidate to emerge victorious there in a presidential election was Lyndon Johnson in 1964. Trump won the state with more than 65% of the vote in the 2016 election. The Republican stronghold gives Trump more assurance that he will face little resistance to his efforts from top state officials.

“It’s going to be safe,” said Gov. Kevin Stitt, a Republican. “We have to learn how to be safe and how to move on.”

Tulsa resident Sue Williams picked her place in line Thursday afternoon. “I’ve been praying, and I don’t believe I’m going to get the coronavirus,” Williams, 72, said, adding that she signed a waiver on her ticket application about the risks involved in going inside.

Mark Kelleher of Oklahoma City dismissed the threat of the virus as “fear porn.”

"I think it's all a hoax, to tell you the truth," Kelleher said.
The rally was originally scheduled for Friday, but it was moved back a day following an uproar that it otherwise would have happened on Juneteenth, and in a city where a 1921 white-on-Black attack killed as many as 300 people.

Campaign officials said Trump would focus on what they call the “great American comeback." White House officials continue to project strong growth numbers for the U.S. economy in the third and fourth quarters. They want to give Americans a reason for optimism. “We are back, and we will be booming,” press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said Friday.

But Conant said he anticipates a lot of the speech will focus on presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden.

"Right now the election is a referendum on Trump, and he's losing," Conant said. "I think he needs to make a very strong case for why Biden would be a worse president."

Rich Barak of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution contributed to this report.