Gathering a smaller-than-expected crowd, President Donald Trump sought to reinvigorate 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 is nearing 120,000, Trump declared on Saturday night that his response to the pandemic saved “hundreds of thousands” of lives.
Trump 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 the president was “speaking in jest.”
The US president also 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 prerally 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, comparing the anti-racism protesters across the US as “animals.”
Trump has come under fire for his responses to the coronavirus 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 the country’s bloodiest outbreaks of racist violence against Black Americans some 100 years ago.
“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, almost half of the BOK Center arena were empty, and the campaign was forced to cancel an outdoor rally, after the expected overflow crowd did not show up.
Oklahoma has reported a surge in new COVID-19 infections in recent days, and the state’s department of health has warned that rally attendees face an increased risk of catching the virus.
Hours before the rally, Trump’s 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
The rally is expected to be the biggest indoor event the country has seen since restrictions to prevent the coronavirus from spreading began in March.
Trump’s own campaign issued an unusual disclaimer telling attendees they “assume all risks related to exposure to COVID-19”.
The rally comes as the country is still in the throes of the coronavirus pandemic, with Oklahoma’s case tally reaching a new daily high on Wednesday, at 450 infections.
‘Back to business’
Trump has emphasised quickly reopening the country, claiming that there may be “embers” of the pandemic that can be handled locally.
In an interview with the 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.
The Trump campaign said masks and hand sanitiser will be provided at the rally. However, many attendees are expected to flout local and national guidelines that recommend people wear face coverings in public.
“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 that 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 facemasks, that they are not concerned about the virus.”
Trump also faces criticism for holding the rally in Tulsa – where hundreds of Black residents were massacred by white mobs in 1921 – following the killing of George Floyd last month.