Despite warnings from U.S. health experts, Donald Trump returned to the campaign trail Saturday night, holding his first in-person rally since the coronavirus pandemic began. And of course, his speech was full of culture war fodder.
The event took place at the BOK Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma—a city that's become a COVID-19 hot spot over the last several days. Hours before the rally kicked off, it was confirmed that six Trump campaign staffers had tested positive for the potentially fatal disease. Trump's camp reassured the public that the infected aides would not attend Saturday's rally, and insisted organizers were taking safety precautions to prevent further infections.
Trump addressed COVID-19 at the beginning of his speech, referring to it as the "Kung Flu," a racist and xenophobic term he previously defended.
"By the way, it's a disease, without question, has more names than any other in history. I can name, Kung Flu, I can name, 19 different versions of names," he told the crowd. "Many call it a virus, which it is, many call it a flu, what difference, I think we have 19 or 20 versions of the name."
He also used the term "Chinese virus," while touting his handling of the crisis. (As of Saturday, the U.S. had tallied more than 2.3 million confirmed coronavirus cases.)
"COVID. To be specific, COVID-19. That name gets further and further away from China, as opposed to calling it the Chinese virus," he said. "We—I—did a phenomenal job with it ... Testing is a double-edged sword. We've tested now 25 million people. It's probably 20 million people more than anybody else ... Here's the bad part: When you do testing to that extent, you're going to find more people, you're going to find more cases. So I said to my people, slow the testing down please."
Trump went on to slam the "left-wing anarchists" who have reoved controversial monuments during the nationwide protests. He specifically pointed to a recent incident in Portland, where demonstrators toppled a George Washington statue, covered it in an American flag, and set it on fire.
"We oughta come up with legislation that if you burn the American flag, you go to jail for one year," the Trump said, while turning to Oklahoma Sens. Jim Inhofe and James Lankford. "Jim and James, you know we oughta do it. You know, they talk about freedom of speech, and I believe in freedom of speech. But that’s desecration."
In 1989, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled flag-burning was protected as "symbolic speech" under the First Amendment.
Trump then briefly mentioned the #TakeaKnee movement, in which athletes kneel during the national anthem to protest against police brutality. The president called out NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, who recently expressed his support for the Black Lives Matter movement and vowed to support any athlete who protested peacefully.
"Play this to the NFL — I like the NFL, I like Roger Goodell, but I didn't like what he said a week ago," Trump told the crowd. "I said, 'Where did that come from in the middle of this summer? Nobody's even asking.' We will never kneel to our national anthem or our great American flag. We will stand proud and we will stand tall ... I thought we won that battle with the NFL. The stadiums were emptying out. Did you see those stadiums? Took 'em a long time to get you back. Lot of people didn't like that."
Another bizarre moment during the rally occurred Trump went on a lengthy rant about his recent commencement speech at West Point. The president was seen awkwardly taking a sip of water and struggling to walk down a ramp, which raised questions about his physical health. Trump said he was simply being extra cautious in both instances, as he didn't want to get water on his tie or slip and fall in front of the cameras.
"This was a steel ramp. It had no handrail. It was like an ice skating rink!," he explained. "And I said, 'General, I have a problem,' and he didn’t understand that at first ... I said, 'General, there’s no way I can make it down that ramp without falling on my ass, general. I have no railing.' It’s true! So I said, 'Is there, like, something else around?' He said 'Sir, the ramp is ready to go! Grab me, sir, grab me!' I didn’t really want to grab him. You know why? 'Cause I said, 'That’ll be a story too.'"
He continued: "... So I said, 'General, get ready, ’cause I may grab you so fast.' Because I can’t fall with the fake news watching ... So I took these little steps, I ran down the last 10. And by the way, their tape? Take a look. In almost every instance, it ends just before I run. And they said it was the No. 1 trending story."
The "Keep America Great" rally also went down amid nationwide protests against police brutality and racial injustice. Trump's campaign blamed demonstrators and reporters for the event's lower-than-expected turnout, which was was illustrated by social media photos of a half-empty BOK Center.
"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," Murtaugh said in a statement to The Hill. "Sadly, protestors interfered with supporters, even blocking access to the metal detectors, which prevented people from entering the rally. 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."
Trump previously claimed his team had received nearly a million ticket requests for Saturday's rally, while local officials said they expected a crowd of 100,000 people or more. Hours before POTUS was set to take the stage, it was clear that estimate was way too generous. In fact, Trump's team abruptly canceled an outdoor event intended for the overflow crowd; but photos and videos posted on social media showed a very sparse and unlively crowd.
Andrew Little, a spokesperson for the Tulsa Fire Department, estimated that about 6,200 people attended the rally, Forbes reports. The number comes from a tally that was taken by the fire marshal.
SCOOP: A Tulsa Fire Dept spox confirmed to @Forbes that they clocked turnout at Trump's rally at just under 6,200, far less than the BOK Center's 19,200 capacity.— Andrew Solender (@AndrewSolender) June 21, 2020
The campaign had expected enough to warrant a second speech to the overflow section. https://t.co/5j651hSRjs
Social media users claim that TikTok teens had inflated the number of ticket requests as a way to troll the president; however, the campaign told CNN such reports were untrue.
"We had legitimate 300,000 signups of Republicans who voted in the last four elections," the representative said. "Those are not [TikTok] kids. It was fear of violent protests. This is obvious with the lack of families and children at the rally. We normally have thousands of families."
The rally was originally set to take place on Friday; however, the president pushed the event one day back "out of respect for Juneteenth"—the annual holiday that commemorates the end of U.S. slavery.
"We had previously scheduled our #MAGA Rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, for June 19th — a big deal," he tweeted over a week ago. "Unfortunately, however, this would fall on the Juneteenth Holiday. Many of my African American friends and supporters have reached out to suggest that we consider changing the date out of respect for this Holiday, and in observance of this important occasion and all that it represents. I have therefore decided to move our rally to Saturday, June 20th, in order to honor their requests."
Tom Petty's estate also issued a statement condemning Trump's use of the late singer's use of the song "I Won't Back Down."