Trump's "comeback celebration" in Tulsa overshadowed by COVID-19 diagnoses and largely empty arena

TikTok users and K-pop fans revealed they RSVP-ed with no plans to show in a troll started by a 51-year-old grandma

Published June 21, 2020 1:32PM (EDT)

The upper section of the arena is seen partially empty as US President Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally at the BOK Center on June 20, 2020 in Tulsa, Oklahoma. - Hundreds of supporters lined up early for Donald Trump's first political rally in months, saying the risk of contracting COVID-19 in a big, packed arena would not keep them from hearing the president's campaign message.  (Photo by Nicholas Kamm/AFP via Getty Images)
The upper section of the arena is seen partially empty as US President Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally at the BOK Center on June 20, 2020 in Tulsa, Oklahoma. - Hundreds of supporters lined up early for Donald Trump's first political rally in months, saying the risk of contracting COVID-19 in a big, packed arena would not keep them from hearing the president's campaign message. (Photo by Nicholas Kamm/AFP via Getty Images)

Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale on Monday tweeted that more than 1 million people had registered for tickets to President Donald Trump's much-hyped rally at the end of the week in Tulsa, Okla.

Two hours before the event kicked off, the campaign sent out more than 1 million text messages: "The Great American Comeback Celebration's almost here! There's still space!"

In total, fewer than 6,200 people showed up to watch the president speak at the 19,000-seat BOK arena, according to the Tulsa Fire Department. It was not long before TikTok users and fans of South Korean pop music, known as K-pop, revealed that they had made reservations with no plans to show as part of a massive troll started by a 51-year-old grandmother in Fort Dodge, Iowa.

"The event in Oklahoma is unbelievable," Trump, who said he expected 40,000 people would attend, boasted at the White House just before departing on Marine One. "The crowds are unbelievable. They haven't seen anything like it, and we will go there now. We'll give a hopefully good speech. We're going to see a lot of great people — a lot of great friends. And pretty much that's it, OK?"

Trump was informed en route to the rally that six campaign members who went ahead to prep the event had tested positive for COVID-19. Two secret service agents also tested positive. By the time Air Force One landed in Tulsa, the campaign had canceled the speech Trump was slated to deliver in the overflow lot, where all of 25 people had gathered.

Trump had planned to use the rally to inject new life into his campaign and his own personal system, which initially withered as campaign events were halted by coronavirus restrictions and later over criticism for his responses to the pandemic and the death of George Floyd.

Trump campaign spokesperson Tim Murtaugh blamed protesters, alleging that they had intimidated attendees and blocked access to gates and metal detectors.

"Radical protestors, coupled with an intense onslaught from the media, attempted to frighten off the president's supporters," he said in a statement. "We are proud of the thousands who stuck it out."

Trump blasted the same message from the stage at the beginning of his speech.

"You are warriors," he told the group gathered on the gray arena floorboard in front of him, blaming "thugs" for the thin herd.

"We had some very bad people outside. They were doing bad things," he added. "But I really do appreciate it."

But reporters on the ground said they did not see any violence or blocked entrances. And Tulsa police only reported one arrest: a woman wearing an "I can't breathe" T-shirt who sat in the parking lot in peaceful protest until the campaign ordered her removed her from the private event. She had a ticket.

Though Trump aimed to use the event's energy to separate the spirit of his campaign from presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden, what followed was an aimless and pessimistic address, which lasted two hours. When his greatest hits failed to land — race-baiting, the "fake news" media — Trump abandoned his triumphant battle cry and descended into an observational stand-up routine about his recent personal grievances, which at times bordered on slapstick.

The president mocked the media and nameless Democrats for misreading his physical health during his West Point commencement address, proving to the crowd that he could indeed walk down a ramp and drink a glass of water with one hand. Trump spent one out of eight minutes on "rampgate," according to a Washington Post analysis. The biggest applause line of the night, in fact, came when he spontaneously chucked the empty cup, a move which may have encapsulated his own feelings about the evening.

The rally, Trump's first since March 2, was doomed almost from the start. The president drew intense backlash for the date and location: Juneteenth, or Jubilee, when Black Americans observe their independence from slavery; and Tulsa, the site of one of the bloodiest outbursts of racist violence against Black Americans in U.S. history.

Critics saw this as a troll, intentionally exacerbating widespread outrage at his bellicose response to nationwide protests about police brutality, which included tear-gassing peaceful protestors so he could take a photo with a Bible in front of a church. If it was a troll, it was unclear whether the president had been informed.

"I did something good: I made Juneteenth very famous," he told The Wall Street Journal this week. "It's actually an important event — an important time. But nobody had ever heard of it."

However, Trump's speech did not mention Juneteenth, the Tulsa massacre or Floyd. Instead, he alleged that his political opponents had co-opted the protest movement in an attempt to divide the country.

"The unhinged left-wing mob is trying to vandalize our history, desecrate 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," Trump told the crowd, pulling a rare cheer.

"And our people are not nearly as violent, but if they ever were, it would be a terrible, terrible day for the other side," he added in an apparent allusion to a second Civil War.

The whataboutism fell audibly flat when it came to Biden, whom Trump mostly challenged on a personal level, dismissing his opponent as mentally and physically unfit to run against him, as well as out of touch with the social justice movement sweeping the country.

"Virtually every policy that has hurt Black Americans for the last half a century, Joe Biden has supported or enacted," Trump claimed. "I have done more for the Black community in four years then Joe Biden has done in 47 years."

The president also felt compelled to vent about the coronavirus, an unprecedented public health emergency whose threat has handcuffed the president to a politically inconvenient reality for months. 

Trump sought to dodge responsibility for nearly every dimension of the pandemic, pinning blame on the Chinese government for the global spread of the virus, which has killed nearly 120,000 Americans, and attacking Democrats for keeping state economies closed.

"We were the envy of the world . . . and then the plague came in," Trump said, calling on states to reopen, despite the fact that all 50 have been taking steps since May.

"We're going to go up, up, up," he said.

Trump also fictionalized the pandemic itself, as infection numbers have again begun to spike.

"You know testing is a double edge sword," he told the audience.

"When you do testing to that extent, you're going to find more people. You're going to find more cases," Trump said in a ripping crescendo. "So I said to my people, slow the testing down please."

The White House immediately walked back the explosive confession, reassuring the public that the president had only been joking.

However, some Tulsa Trump supporters may not have laughed. Local public health officials had raised alarms about the rally all week, saying the city was experiencing its largest ever spike in cases and deaths.

"COVID is here in Tulsa," health department director Dr. Bruce Dart cautioned. "It is transmitting very efficiently."

"I'm concerned about our ability to protect anyone who attends a large, indoor event, and I'm also concerned about our ability to ensure the president stays safe, as well," he said, adding his wish that the rally be postponed.

That risk may have deterred attendants more than the K-pop troll, which inflated the campaign's confidence about what was happening on the ground.

Trump acknowledged the evening's failings from the podium.

"So far tonight, I'm average," he reflected.

And it might be that Tulsa was not a troll after all. Trump won Oklahoma by 36 points in 2016, and no Democratic presidential nominee has carried the state since 1964.

But if the campaign did, in fact, choose the venue as the friendliest, safest space to stage the president's swaggering return to the national stage, Trump's rant may not have ended with the speech.

By Roger Sollenberger

Roger Sollenberger was a staff writer at Salon (2020-21). Follow him on Twitter @SollenbergerRC.

MORE FROM Roger Sollenberger

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Brad Parscale Donald Trump Elections Elections 2020 George Floyd Joe Biden Politics Republicans