US President Donald Trump’s reelection campaign hit out at protesters and the media on Sunday as it scrambled to reset after a disappointing relaunch at a rally beset by missteps.
The event in Tulsa, Oklahoma was marred by empty seats, coronavirus infections within the campaign and a rambling speech by Trump that was criticized for having nothing of substance to say on the pandemic or racial tensions gripping America.
The White House had promised Saturday’s much-hyped event – Trump’s first rally in three months – would be flooded with up to 100,000 people, but large sections of the 19,000-capacity BOK Center were empty.
An outdoor event for the overflow crowd was canceled because no one showed up, despite the campaign claiming huge interest ahead of time and boasting more than a million ticket requests.
Trump has something of an obsession with big crowds, frequently boasting about the size of his rallies compared with those of Joe Biden, his Democratic rival for November’s presidential election.
The president refrained from commenting on the rally as the dust settled the following morning, tweeting only to deliver a Father’s Day greeting.
But several US media outlets, citing multiple sources close to the White House, said he was “furious” at the small crowd in Tulsa.
Senior Trump campaign aide Mercedes Schlapp told Fox News Sunday that attendees had been unable to get into the BOK Center because their way was blocked by demonstrators.
She added that families “didn’t want to bring – couldn’t bring – their children because of concerns of the protesters.”
‘Phony ticket requests
But reporters on the ground said they saw no problems for people trying to get in.
Reports have been circulating in the last week that teen users of social media platform TikTok were block-booking tickets with no intention of turning up in a bid to embarrass Trump.
The campaign angrily denied it had been duped, however.
“These phony ticket requests never factor into our thinking,” Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale said in a statement.
Parscale instead blamed the poor attendance on the “fake news media” for reporting on health concerns over the staging of a large indoor gathering during the coronavirus outbreak.
He said images from the race protests that have gripped the country had also scared away families.
The stakes could not be higher for Trump’s political fortunes, five months before an election in which he is currently trailing Biden by 9.5 points nationwide, according to polling data aggregator RealClearPolitics.
The rally had been controversial from the outset as it originally was scheduled for Friday – the Juneteenth commemoration of the end of slavery in the US – in a city known for one of the deadliest-ever massacres of African Americans.
Racial tensions have roiled the nation following the police killing of a black man, George Floyd, in Minneapolis.
But Trump mentioned neither, instead choosing to fan the flames of racial animus with an anti-Chinese designation of Covid-19 as the “Kung Flu.”
And on the coronavirus, he was roundly criticized for claiming that the “double-edged sword” of comprehensive testing had led to the United States having the world’s highest number of cases.
“When you do testing… you are going to find more people, you will find more cases,” Trump argued.
“So I said to my people, ‘slow the testing down.'”
A White House official later told AFP that Trump was joking, prompting more anger from critics who said he should not make light of a pandemic that has killed 120,000 Americans.
Adding to the sense that the rally had been riddled with problems, six members of Trump’s advance team working in Tulsa tested positive for Covid-19 just hours before the president took the stage.
Coronavirus cases have recently been skyrocketing in Oklahoma and local health officials had asked the Trump campaign not to go ahead with the rally, fearing it would become a “superspreader” event.
“Here’s my theory; don’t hurt the people that love you,” tweeted triple Grammy Award-winning US singer Pink.
“I would never ask people to come to an arena right now. No good person would.”
The pop star, who earlier tweeted that she had “sold that same place out in five minutes” was among a number of public figures who took to Twitter to mock Trump over the disappointing attendance.
“The last time I saw a crowd this small was Trump’s Inauguration,” tweeted Pennsylvania congressman Brendan Boyle.