Donald Trump took aim at the media, Joe Biden and “the radical left” before a smaller than expected crowd in Tulsa, Oklahoma on Saturday, as he tried to relaunch an election campaign stalled by the coronavirus crisis.
The president weighed in to the racial injustice debate by claiming the destruction of some statues during Black Lives Matter protests were a sign of things to come if the Democrats won the White House in November.
“The unhinged leftwing mob is trying to vandalise our history, desecrating our monuments, our beautiful monuments, tear down our statues and punish, cancel and persecute anyone who does not conform to their demands for absolute and total control, we’re not conforming,” he said to roars from the crowd.
“They want to demolish our heritage so they can impose their new oppressive regime in its place. They want to defund and dissolve our police departments. Think of that.”
The Trump campaign had expected some 19,000 people to crowd the city’s BOK Center arena, even though the number of coronavirus cases in Tulsa has spiked since the start of the month and the head of the city’s health department had warned the rally posed a huge risk.
“We have never had an empty seat, and we certainly won’t in Oklahoma,” the US president told reporters at the White House earlier this week.
The president’s re-election team had also anticipated thousands of supporters would fill an outdoor “overflow” area where Mr Trump and US vice-president Mike Pence would address the crowd.
But the arena was far from full on Saturday night, and the campaign cancelled the outdoor events, blaming “radical protesters” outside the venue and a “relentless onslaught from the media”.
Tim Murtaugh, the Trump campaign’s communications director, said the president was rallying with “thousands of energetic supporters”.
“Sadly, protesters interfered with supporters, even blocking access to the metal detectors, which prevented people from entering the rally. Radical protesters, 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,” Mr Murtaugh added.
Mr Trump called supporters inside the arena “warriors” as he slammed protesters who have taken to the streets after George Floyd was killed by police in Minneapolis, and burnishing his “law and order” credentials.
The Trump campaign had talked up demand for seats in advance of the rally © AP
The president said Congress should pass a law banning the burning of the American flag, with violators sent to prison for one year. The US Supreme Court ruled in 1989 that Americans had the right to burn flags under the First Amendment to the Constitution, which protects the right to free speech.
“I stand before you today to declare that the silent majority is stronger than ever before,” Mr Trump said, adding: “Five months from now, we are going to defeat Sleepy Joe Biden.”
The Trump campaign was criticised for originally planning the rally for June 19 — the anniversary of the end of slavery — and in Tulsa, scene of a racist massacre in 1921. It was also accused of risking a spike in coronavirus cases.
The president has slipped in opinion polls in recent weeks, as an increasing number of Americans disapprove of his handling of the coronavirus pandemic. He has also come under criticism from both Democrats and Republicans for his response to the widespread protests following Floyd’s death last month.
A Fox News poll this week gave Mr Biden, the former vice-president who will be the Democratic party’s presidential nominee, a 12-point lead over Mr Trump nationwide, while a Quinnipiac survey put the former vice-president eight points ahead of the incumbent.
Mr Trump attacked Mr Biden repeatedly on Saturday night, saying the former vice-president was a “helpless puppet of the radical left”.
“He’s not radical left. I don’t think he knows what he is any more,” the president added.
Mr Trump defended his handling of the coronavirus crisis, saying he “did a phenomenal job” with the pandemic. He claimed he had asked officials to reduce the number of Covid-19 tests because “when you do testing to that extent you’re going to find more cases.”
“I said to my people slow the testing down,” the president added.
Mr Trump was joined at Saturday’s rally by many of his high-profile allies, including multiple Republican senators, congressmen and local officials. Mr Pence addressed the arena before the president but left to travel back to Washington DC before Mr Trump took the stage.
Nigel Farage, the head of the UK Brexit party, also attended the rally, despite a ban preventing people from the UK, Ireland and other European countries from travelling to the US due to the coronavirus. A spokesperson for the US department of homeland security said Mr Farage’s visit had been deemed “in the national interest”.
Earlier on Saturday, Mr Trump’s re-election campaign confirmed that six staffers had tested positive for Covid-19 ahead of the Tulsa rally.
Mr Murtaugh said campaign staff were tested for coronavirus before events “per safety protocols”.
“Six members of the advance team tested positive out of hundreds of tests performed, and quarantine procedures were immediately implemented,” Mr Murtaugh said. “No Covid-positive staffers or anyone in immediate contact will be at today’s rally or near attendees and elected officials.”
The campaign said rally attendees would have their temperatures checked before going through security, where they would be given face masks and hand sanitiser. Most attendees did not appear to be wearing masks inside the arena.
The Trump campaign on Saturday morning said it raised $74m in May, giving the US president a war chest of some $265m cash on hand for the election.