As President Donald Trump was about to take the stage at his much publicized rally in an indoor arena in Tulsa, OK, the pre-media focus turned to empty seats and the cancellation plans for an outdoor speech for an overflow crowd.
“Smaller than expected crowd trickles into Tulsa rally,” CNN’s chyron read on Saturday evening, as anchor Wolf Blitzer focused on the empty seats in the upper deck of the BOK Center, which holds 19,199 people.
The crowd was still large for a campaign event, but it was no where near what had been billed. The campaign had boasted of more than 1 million ticket requests — knowing that the venue could never hold that many people — and that raised anticipation that the event would fill the arena.
Campaign manager Brad Parscale also tweeted out images of a stage being built for the president to address an overflow crowd. But Just before Trump was set to arrive in Tulsa, the campaign announced that the outdoor event had been canceled.
Trump campaign spokesman Tim Murtaugh blamed it on protesters and the media.
“Sadly, protesters interfered with supporters, even blocking access to metal detectors, which prevented people from entering the really,” Murtaugh said. “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.”
But some reporters disputed the notion that the protesters had a significant impact on attendees getting into the arena, and noted that the issue was that not enough people showed up. The campaign sent out a last-minute text to supporters advising them that space was still available in the arena.
Trump has fixated on crowd sizes, to the point of challenging news accounts of empty seats at previous rallies and, most famously, sending his first press secretary, Sean Spicer, out to the media to insist that the president drew “the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration, period.”
The rally has been seen as a way for Trump to return to the campaign trail, in a format he typically seems to relish, in what his campaign billed as the “Great American Comeback.” His last rally was in Charlotte on March 2. He trails Vice President Joe Biden by almost nine points in Real Clear Politics polling average.
Trump also is sending a message of defiance amid the coronavirus, which has otherwise forced the cancellation or postponement of large-scale events around the world. Journalists have pressed White House and campaign officials on safety measures for the rally given that the state has reported an uptick in cases. As of Saturday, Tulsa County has the most cases of any county in the state — 2,206.
The campaign insisted that measures were being taken. Attendees were offered masks and hand sanitizer and were given required temperature checks, but as many correspondents noted in the arena, many attendees were not wearing them and not social distancing.
On Saturday afternoon, the campaign announced that six advance staffers tested positive for coronavirus and “quarantine procedures were immediately implemented.” That gave more fuel to concerns that the rally itself could be the source of a “super spread” of the coronavirus, with thousands crowded in an indoor space. The issue of mask vs. no mask has become a become political statement, as Trump has declined to wear one and even suggested that it was a sign of political correctness.