President Donald Trump addressed an enthusiastic — though smaller than expected — crowd of supporters at a campaign rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, on Saturday night as some protesters gathered outside to call for an end to systemic racism and police brutality.
“You are warriors, thank you. We had some very bad people outside,” Trump told the crowd inside the BOK Center, later referring to protesters as “thugs.”
The Tulsa event, the first Trump rally to take place in months, was held against the advice of Trump’s own coronavirus task force, which had urged White House officials to nix the event amid fears it might spread coronavirus.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the country’s top infectious disease expert, advised in an interview earlier this month that large events of any kind, including Trump’s rally, remain “risky,” and he urged people to avoid such gatherings.
The Trump campaign warned potential rallygoers that they would participate in the event at their own risk. The registration page for the rally included a legal disclaimer that said attendees could not sue Trump or his campaign if they found themselves infected with COVID-19.
On Saturday afternoon, the Trump campaign confirmed that at least six rally staffers tested positive for the coronavirus. The staffers were immediately quarantined, the campaign said.
Trump did not mention the sick staffers during his address, but he repeatedly downplayed the threat of the coronavirus and referred to it as the “Chinese virus” and “kung flu.”
At one point, Trump suggested he wanted COVID-19 testing to be slowed down, as more testing uncovers more cases. (A White House official later told The Wall Street Journal that Trump was “clearly joking” about slowing down testing.)
“Testing is a double-edged sword,” Trump told the crowd in Oklahoma. “Here’s the bad part: When you do testing to that extent, you’re gonna find more people, you’re gonna find more cases.”
“I said to my people, ‘Slow the testing down, please,’” he said.
Rally attendees were given face coverings when they entered the venue but many chose not to wear them, The Washington Post reported. Most police officers and National Guard soldiers who were on site also chose not to cover their faces, according to the publication.
Joe Biden released a statement after the rally responding to Trump’s remarks on COVID-19: “This virus has killed nearly 120,000 Americans and cost tens of millions their jobs, in large part because this president could not and would not mobilize testing as quickly as we needed it. To hear him say tonight that he has ordered testing slowed — a transparent attempt to make the numbers look better — is appalling.”
Trump’s aides previously claimed that more than 1 million people wanted tickets to the main rally inside the BOK Center. But the actual turnout fell short of expectations.
The president was initially scheduled to address supporters outside the arena, which has a capacity of 19,000 people, earlier in the evening before heading inside. But Trump’s campaign canceled the outdoor remarks at the last minute.
At the time the cancellation was announced, only a few dozen people were reportedly gathered in the overflow area outside the venue. Inside, the upper stands were empty, and there was plenty of room in the standing-only area in front of the stage.
Trump campaign spokesman Tim Murtaugh blamed protesters for the low turnout, saying demonstrators blocked access to metal detectors, which prevented participants from entering the venue.
“Radical protesters, coupled with a relentless onslaught from the media, attempted to frighten off the President’s supporters,” Murtaugh said.
Trump’s campaign manager, Brad Parscale, echoed a similar sentiment.
There were some minor clashes between Trump supporters and anti-Trump protesters gathered outside the BOK Center, but there were no major violent confrontations in the lead-up to the event.
Black city leaders had urged people to stay away from Trump’s event, The New York Times reported. Instead, hundreds of people gathered at Veterans Park, about a 30-minute walk away, to participate in the “Rally Against Hate.”
“Our biggest thing was to make sure people felt safe tonight,” rally organizer Tykebrean Cheshire told the Post. “Going to the BOK Center didn’t feel like a safe option. I wanted to do the old-school [Martin Luther King] thing. We’re able to connect with each other, and that’s the most important thing today.”
There had been concerns before the rally that violence might erupt after Trump tweeted what appeared to be a veiled threat aimed at potential protesters.
“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,” the president tweeted Friday. “It will be a much different scene!”
Bracing for potential violence at the Trump event, Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum issued an executive order on Thursday declaring a civil emergency ahead of the rally. Bynum said the city expected tens of thousands of people to flock to the vicinity of the event, including “individuals from organized groups who have been involved in destructive and violent behavior in other States” and who were planning on traveling to Tulsa “for purposes of causing unrest in and around the city.”
On Saturday afternoon, a peaceful protester wearing an “I Can’t Breathe” T-shirt was arrested by Tulsa police outside the BOK Center at the behest of Trump’s campaign staff. “I Can’t Breathe” has become a rallying cry for protesters calling for the end of racism and police brutality following the death last month of George Floyd, a Black man in Minneapolis who uttered those words as a white police officer knelt on his neck, leading to his death.
The protester — identified by police as Tulsa resident Sheila Buck — was accused of trespassing in a secure area accessible only to ticket holders, though Buck said she had a ticket for the event. A video of the arrest shows officers grabbing Buck by her armpits and dragging her away.
Trump lambasted protesters, calling them “thugs” and “bad people,” but did not respond their calls to end racial injustice or police brutality in the wake of Floyd’s death.
The president spoke for more than an hour and a half but did not mention Floyd’s name at all. He also did not mention Juneteenth, which fell on Friday and commemorates the end of slavery in America.
Trump had previously been criticized for planning the Tulsa rally on Juneteenth. He postponed the rally by one day after facing backlash.
Near the end of his address, Trump said only that he’d “done more for the Black community in four years than Joe Biden has done in 47 years,” referring to the former vice president and the presumptive Democratic nominee for president.
“Racial justice begins with Joe Biden’s retirement from public life,” Trump said.
The president did spend about 10 minutes of his speech defending his awkward walk down a ramp after a speech at West Point last week.
“It was like an ice-skating rink,” Trump said of the ramp.