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.
While he was in the air, the campaign had canceled the outside appearance given the apparent lack of enthusiasm.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.