The Trump campaign on Sunday sought to blame concerns about protesters for the lower-than-expected turnout at the president’s rally in Tulsa, even though the campaign itself had raised expectations about attendance by touting the number of people who had signed up for tickets online.
Reporters on site also saw little evidence of attendees being blocked from going to the event.
In the days leading up to Saturday night’s rally — President Donald Trump’s first since March — the president’s re-election campaign repeatedly touted figures suggesting that as many as 1 million people had signed up to attend. But the crowd did not fill the 19,000-seat BOK Center, with swaths of upper-level seating empty, and plans for a presidential speech in an outdoor overflow area were abruptly canceled as few attendees filled the space.
There were just under 6,200 people in the arena, the Tulsa Fire Marshal’s Office said Sunday. Trump’s campaign rallies have typically attracted more than 10,000 people, and some have drawn two or three times that many — although the president has a habit of inflating his crowd numbers to cast his popularity as even greater.
In an interview on “Fox News Sunday,” campaign adviser Mercedes Schlapp argued that turnout was lower than expected because Trump supporters were afraid of protests outside the venue turning violent.
People were concerned about the demonstrations, Schlapp said, “and so, we saw that have an impact in terms of people coming to the rally.” Pressed by host Chris Wallace on the fact that the Trump campaign itself had raised expectations about high attendance numbers, Schlapp replied, “There were people and families that couldn’t bring their children because of concerns of the protesters.”
Schlapp also emphasized that the online reach of the event was “far and wide,” saying that more than 5.3 million people viewed it on the campaign’s digital media channels. The White House similarly fell back on claims about online viewership in January 2017 when faced with questions about the low crowd numbers for Trump’s inauguration.
Trump’s 2020 campaign manager, Brad Parscale, issued a statement Sunday morning pushing back against reports that some TikTok users and K-pop fans had sought to sabotage the rally by reserving tickets they didn’t plan to use.
The campaign had weeded out “tens of thousands” of bogus cellphone numbers ahead of the rally, Parscale said, but “these phony ticket requests never factor into our thinking” for possible crowd size.
“The fact is that a week’s worth of the fake news media warning people away from the rally because of COVID and protestors, coupled with recent images of American cities on fire, had a real impact on people bringing their families and children to the rally,” Parscale said. He added that the episode “makes us wonder why we bother credentialing media for events when they don’t do their full jobs as professionals.”
Outside the rally venue Saturday night, one group of protesters blocked one of three entrances for about 15 minutes — but by that point, most people had already entered the arena’s outer perimeter.
By the time Trump took the stage, there had been tense verbal confrontations outside but no reports of violence. Civilians carrying military-style rifles and pistols wandered amid the crowds, claiming they wanted to keep people safe, while Tulsa police and National Guard troops restrained and separated opposing sides.
Symone Sanders, a senior adviser to former vice president Joe Biden’s 2020 presidential campaign, sharply criticized the Trump campaign’s decision to hold the rally amid the coronavirus pandemic.
The sign-up page for the rally, for instance, contained a disclaimer noting that attendees “voluntarily assume all risks related to exposure to COVID-19” and agree not to hold the campaign or venue liable should they get sick. Fears that the rally could accelerate the spread of the virus were underscored when six members of the Trump campaign advance team tested positive.
Trump’s “debacle of a rally last night will long be remembered,” Sanders said on “Fox News Sunday,” arguing that the “most damning thing” was the president’s statement that he had asked members of his administration to slow down coronavirus testing to keep case numbers down.
A White House official told The Washington Post that Trump had been joking.
“This is an appalling attempt to lessen the numbers only to make him look good,” Sanders said, describing Trump’s rally remarks as “the admission of the president that he slowed testing for his political benefit.”
Biden campaign spokesman Andrew Bates also skewered the president over his rally turnout.
“Donald Trump has abdicated leadership and it is no surprise that his supporters have responded by abandoning him,” Bates said in a statement.
And despite the White House’s claim, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., took the president’s remarks about coronavirus testing at face value, accusing him of seeking to obscure the extent of the pandemic’s spread.
“Testing, tracing, treatment and social distancing are the only tools we have to stop the spread of the coronavirus, but President Trump orders his Administration to slow down the testing that saves lives,” Pelosi said in a statement Sunday. “The President’s efforts to slow down desperately needed testing to hide the true extent of the virus mean more Americans will lose their lives.”
Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, a Democrat, accused the Trump campaign Sunday of showing “no concern for what it means for people to be gathering in large numbers.”
In an interview on CNN’s “State of the Union,” she called the rally an embarrassment and said she hoped the lower-than-expected turnout was a “preview for November.”
“Finally people are recognizing that this man is a danger to our country, a danger to our democracy and that he should not be the president of the United States of America. ... I just hope that this is a good sign that the country is moving on from him,” Bottoms said.
Some administration officials on Sunday defended the Trump campaign’s decision to hold a rally during the pandemic.
“I think what we saw, particularly in Tulsa, when you talk about the president’s rally, is a state in a Phase 3 reopening. And so activities like this are allowed,” acting secretary of homeland security Chad Wolf said during an interview on NBC News’s “Meet the Press.” Wolf added that it was “a personal choice that people are making on the face coverings and where you are within that phase.”
Oklahoma has recorded an increasing number of coronavirus cases in recent weeks, with more than 10,000 cases and 368 deaths as of Sunday morning. There had also been a spike in cases in Tulsa, which led the local health department director to initially ask that the rally be postponed.
The Oklahoma Supreme Court denied a request that everyone attending the indoor rally wear a mask, and few at the event in the evening appeared to be wearing them.