WASHINGTON/TULSA — Amid a still-strong pandemic and after weeks of protests about racial inequality, President Donald Trump prepared to hold a rally with thousands of supporters in Oklahoma on Saturday in an effort to reinvigorate his re-election campaign.
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 drew more criticism for his decision to hold his first rally since schools and businesses were shut in March to stop the spread of coronavirus in Tulsa, the site of the country’s bloodiest outbreaks of racist violence against Black Americans some 100 years ago.
Hours before the rally, Trump’s campaign announced six members of its advance team had tested positive for COVID-19.
Oklahoma has reported a surge in new COVID-19 infections in recent days, and the state’s department of health has warned that attendees at the 19,000-seat BOK Center venue face an increased risk of catching the virus. “No COVID-positive staffers or anyone in immediate contact will be at today’s rally or near attendees and elected officials,” Tim Murtaugh, campaign communications director, said in a statement.
The Republican president is trailing the 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.
Kevin and Joan Hansston drove from Illinois for their eighth Trump rally and said it was hypocritical to be concerned about coronavirus at the event after weeks of mass protests over the death of George Floyd.
“Trump has a rally and all of a sudden we’re concerned about it again,” said Kevin Hansston, 65, who was not wearing a mask.
Tulsa Police reported one arrest after the Trump Campaign asked them to remove a “Ms. Buck” from a private event area and she refused to leave. Police tweeted a photo of a white woman wearing a black t-shirt reading “I can’t breathe” sitting on the ground speaking to an officer.
On a corner outside the rally a group of Black people and Trump supporters got into a shouting match.
“Trump was never racist until he got elected,” a man draped in a Trump flag yelled.
“You sound just as stupid as you look,” a woman replied.
“Stop living in the past!” Another man yelled from the side. “I ain’t never seen no slaves!” ”Whatever they did does affect now,” one of the Black counter protesters yelled.
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 have 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.
Trump was scheduled to address an overflow crowd of supporters outside at 6 p.m. local time (7 p.m. ET), before speaking at the rally indoors at 7 p.m. (8 p.m. ET).
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.