Gathering a smaller than expected crowd, President Donald Trump sought to breathe new life into his re-election campaign with a rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, amid anti-racism protests in cities across the country and a still-strong coronavirus pandemic.
Even as the coronavirus death toll in the United States neared 120,000, Trump declared on Saturday night that his response to the pandemic saved “hundreds of thousands” of lives.
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He also suggested that he wants the pace of COVID-19 testing in the US to slow down, blaming it for the rapid rise in the number of confirmed cases. His campaign, however, said the president was “speaking in jest”.
The US president also tried to explain away the crowd size, blaming it on the media who he said warned people: “Don’t go, don’t come, don’t do anything,” while insisting that the protesters outside were “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.”
Just moments before Trump’s speech, his son, Eric, also addressed the crowd, describing the anti-racism protesters across the US as “animals”.
Trump has come under fire for his responses to the coronavirus pandemic and to the death of George Floyd, a Black man who died in the custody of Minneapolis police.
The US president has brushed aside criticism for his decision to hold his first rally since March 2 in Tulsa, the site of one of the country’s bloodiest outbreaks of racist violence against Black Americans about 100 years ago.
He claimed that Democrats were seeking to erase American heritage, a reference to the tearing down of several statues of Confederate slave owners and other figures.
“The unhinged left-wing mob is trying to vandalize our history, desecrate 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,” he said.
“Oklahoma and America need four more years of President Donald Trump in the White House!” Vice President Mike Pence told cheering supporters ahead of Trump’s address at the 19,000-seat BOK Center arena, where many empty seats were visible.
Trump campaign officials had said prior to the event that demand far outstripped the capacity of the venue.
But on Saturday night, the arena was almost half-empty, and the campaign was forced to cancel an outdoor rally after the expected overflow crowd did not show up.
Dozens of Black Lives Matter protesters did gather at rally checkpoints and confronted attendees, but no violence was reported.
Many rally-goers wore red “Make America Great Again” hats or T-shirts, but very few wore masks, and there was little social distancing, even though coronavirus cases have recently been skyrocketing in Oklahoma.
Hours before the rally, the Trump campaign announced six members of its advance team had tested positive for COVID-19.
The Republican president is trailing presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, former Vice President Joe Biden, in polls ahead of the November election.
Supporters are delighted to see Trump back on the campaign trail, and those wanting to attend far outstripped the number of seats available, Trump campaign officials said.
Masks not obligatory
This was the first of Trump’s signature rallies since March 2, when the country went into pandemic lockdown.
The Trump campaign issued an unusual disclaimer telling attendees they “assume all risks related to exposure to COVID-19”.
Oklahoma’s case tally reached a new daily high on Wednesday, at 450 infections.
‘Back to business’
Trump has emphasised quickly reopening the country, saying there may be “embers” of the pandemic that can be handled locally.
In an interview with news site Axios on Friday, Trump predicted a “wild evening” in Oklahoma.
He said the rally is about pushing a message of reopening the country.
“We have to get back to business,” Trump said. “We have to get back to living our lives. Can’t do this any longer.”
The president has also previously warned protesters that they will face a harsh response in Tulsa.
Rally organisers provided everyone with hand sanitiser, temperature checks and optional masks.
Attendees were required to sign a waiver protecting organisers from any liability in the event COVID-19 spreads at the venue.
“It’s a personal choice, I won’t be wearing a mask,” White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany said on Friday, adding that she is frequently tested for the virus.
Al Jazeera’s Jay Gray, reporting from Tulsa ahead of the rally, said Trump’s supporters were “very excited” to see the president.
“When you talk to those supporters, most will tell you that they don’t plan to wear face masks, that they are not concerned about the virus.”