TULSA, Okla. — President Donald Trump will be holding his first rally in months on Saturday in Tulsa, Oklahoma, amid a tense political backdrop, nationwide anti-racism protests, and warnings from health officials about the coronavirus.
“The event in Oklahoma is unbelievable. The crowds are unbelievable,” Trump told reporters on the White House. “They haven’t seen anything like it. We will go there now. We’ll give a hopefully good speech, see a lot of great people, a lot of great friends.”
Trump’s welcome back to the campaign trail comes as the country has a national reckoning over race in a city where one of the worst acts of racial violence in American history occurred. Known as the Tulsa Race Massacre, white residents went on a horrific spree of murder, arson, and looting in a wealthy Black community in 1921.
The Trump had campaign initially scheduled the campaign for June 19, which is known as Juneteenth – a day that commemorates the end of slavery in the U.S — but postponed it after criticism.
Hours before the rally kicked-off, the campaign said six staff members involved in organizing it had tested positive for coronavirus, including two Secret Service members. The campaign said it will conduct contact tracing and those officials will not attend Saturday’s rally.
However, the campaign has refused to cancel or significantly scale down the event despite warnings from health officials and a last-ditch legal challenge about the fear of spreading COVID-19 at one of the largest public gatherings since the outbreak began.
Large crowds of his supporters sporting ‘Make America Great Again’ hats, shirts, and signs, gathered inside Tulsa’s 19,000-seat Bank of Oklahoma Center, many of whom were not wearings masks, but the campaign’s crowd expectations were not met as many seats were empty. Some supporters near the podium appeared to be wearing face coverings. Republican lawmakers, many of whom were not wearing face coverings, were also in attendance.
Campaign officials said masks were offered, and temperatures of rally-goers and reporters were checked on the way into the arena.
A tense and chaotic scene erupted outside the arena, mostly between Trump supporters and anti-racism protesters, many of whom were peaceful and support the Black Lives Matter movement. Police and members of the Oklahoma National Guard were also on-scene near the arena ahead of the rally to create a buffer zone between protesters and rally-goers.
MSNBC aired footage of an anti-racism protester, who had a ticket to the rally, being physically moved by police for refusing to move out of a street near the rally. The unnamed woman was wearing an “I can’t breathe” T-shirt memorializing the words heard by George Floyd before his death in police custody. Other protesters had “8:46” signs, the amount of time the Minnesota officer kneeled on Floyd’s neck.
The Trump campaign criticized protesters in a statement.
“President Trump is rallying in Tulsa with thousands of energetic supporters, a stark contrast to the sleepy campaign being run by Joe Biden from his basement in Delaware,” campaign spokesman Tim Murtaugh said. “Radical protestors, coupled with a relentless onslaught from the media, attempted to frighten off the President’s supporters. We are proud of the thousands who stuck it out.”
The Oklahoma State Department of Health reported 331 new COVID-19 cases on Saturday, bringing the total number of the state’s number of cases to more than 10,000. Those attending the rally must sign a waiver protecting the campaign from responsibility. On Friday, Oklahoma’s Supreme Court rejected a lawsuit to delay the rally because of coronavirus fears.
Many states around the country, including Oklahoma, have begun reopening despite the U.S. recently topping more than 2.2 million coronavirus cases as of Saturday, according to an NBC News tally. States such as Texas, Nevada, and Florida have seen recent upticks in cases.
Trump was originally slated to speak to overflow crowds outside of Saturday’s rally, but his campaign told NBC News moments before the rally began that the president would not make that appearance. The campaign said in a statement protestors had been interfering with people attending the rally, however, MSNBC reported that was not the case. There were also very few supporters gathered in the overflow area outside the event. Campaign workers were seen dismantling outdoor stages shortly before Trump arrived at the arena.
Vice President Mike Pence, who held a roundtable with Black faith and community leaders in Tulsa several miles away from the rally, also declined to speak to crowds outside.
Trump’s rally also comes as he faces another political maelstrom in Washington. A judge ruled on Saturday that Trump’s former national security advisor John Bolton can publish his tell-book about his time in the White House, which paints a damning portrait of the president.
Trump also faces scrutiny over his firing of Geoffrey Berman, the Manhattan U.S. attorney in New York, who was investigating members of the president’s inner circle. Trump told reporters on Saturday he was “not involved” in the firing, telling reporters before heading to Tulsa, “That’s all up to the attorney general.”
Attorney General William Barr had initially announced Berman was resigning. However, Berman issued a statement contradicting Barr and said he would only leave if the Senate confirms his replacement. Berman left his position after deputy U.S. attorney Audrey Strauss was named acting U.S. attorney.
Susan Kroll reported from Tulsa, Oklahoma, Monica Alba from Washington, D.C., and Dartunorro Clark from New York.