Gathering a smaller-than-expected crowd, President Donald Trump sought to reinvigorate his reelection campaign on Saturday with a rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, amid anti-racism protests in cities across the country and a still-strong coronavirus pandemic.
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.
He 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.
Hours before the rally, Trump's campaign announced six members of its advance team had tested positive for COVID-19. Only a handful of attendees wore masks inside the arena.
Oklahoma has reported a surge in new COVID-19 infections in recent days, and the state's department of health warned that attendees face an increased risk of catching the virus.
Trump and Pence canceled addresses to an expected "overflow" crowd outside the arena after "protesters interfered with supporters," Trump campaign spokesman Tim Murtaugh said.These claims were backed by Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale. Taking to Twitter, Parscale claimed that "Radical protestors, fueled by a week of apocalyptic media coverage, interfered with @realDonaldTrump supporters at the rally."They even blocked access to the metal detectors, preventing people from entering."This is despite many live feeds of the area showing no such activity by radical protesters.Many took to crediting a social media campaign that started over the popular social media app TikTok, which had sought to encourage people to buy tickets to the rally and then not attend in order to limit the crowd size.This campaign started when 51-year-old grandmother Mary Jo Laupp, who on Pete Buttigieg's campaign in Iowa last fall, posted a video on the app encouraging followers to buy tickets and not attend."All of those of us that want to see this 19,000 seat auditorium barely filled or completely empty go reserve tickets now and leave him standing alone there on the stage," she said, according to CNN. She did this due to the controversy surrounding the rally from both coronavirus and the Black Lives Matter movement.Another effort is believed to have come from the k-pop fandom, with many over social media having called on the South Korean music genre's very active online fan-base to engage in this particular form of trolling.Responding over Twitter to Parscale's claim of radical activists, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tweeted "Actually you just got ROCKED by teens on TikTok who flooded the Trump campaign w/ fake ticket reservations & tricked you into believing a million people wanted your white supremacist open mic enough to pack an arena during COVID."Shout out to Zoomers. Y’all make me so proud," she added, referring to members of Generation Z.The congresswoman then added: "KPop allies, we see and appreciate your contributions in the fight for justice too."
Television images showed a dozen or so Trump supporters in the “spillover” area watching the event on a large screen.
A small group of armed men could be seen outside the event. One of them told reporters they were there in case "antifa" protesters turned violent, using the acronym for "anti-facist."
The country's racial divide remains a political vulnerability for Trump. His "law and order" reaction to the protests triggered by Floyd's death has put him at odds with the views of most Americans.
After intense criticism, Trump postponed the rally by a day so that it did not coincide with the anniversary of the June 19 commemoration of the end of Black slavery in the United States.
On Friday, he threatened unspecified action against any "protesters, anarchists, agitators, looters or lowlifes" who travels to Oklahoma, a warning that his campaign said was not aimed at peaceful demonstrators. Critics accused Trump of trying to provoke conflict.
White House and Trump campaign officials had largely dismissed concerns about the rally's health safety, saying masks and hand sanitizer will be available. However, participants are required to waive their right sue if they contract the coronavirus at the event.
Strategists and former administrations officials say Trump must convince voters that his policies will pull the United States out of the recession sparked by the economic shutdown amid the outbreak.Aaron Reich contributed to this report.