Trump makes defiant return to campaign stage amid controversies
President Trump on Saturday made a defiant return to the campaign stage under a number of dark clouds looming over his presidency, seeking a reset in his reelection campaign even as the event itself was overshadowed by controversy.
Trump's 90-minute speech was heavy on the same grievances and boasts that have been a hallmark of his campaign style for years. But Saturday's rally came after a three-month hiatus due to the coronavirus pandemic, which is still widespread around the country.
"I stand before you today to declare the silent majority is stronger than ever before," Trump told a boisterous crowd in Tulsa, Okla.
"Five months from now, we’re going to defeat sleepy Joe Biden. Boy, does he get a pass from these people,” he said, gesturing to press in the arena.
Trump attempted to paint Biden, the 77-year-old former vice president and longtime Delaware senator, as mentally declining and simultaneously beholden to more left-wing members of the Democratic Party while being a member of the Washington establishment.
"When the chips are down, Biden will always cave to the radical left," Trump said.
The rally took place amid a combination of national crises. The coronavirus pandemic has killed more than 120,000 people in the U.S. and has triggered an economic downturn. Protests have persisted for more than three weeks in response to the death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man who was killed by Minneapolis police, with demonstrators calling attention to police brutality and racial injustice.
The Trump administration created a fresh dilemma this weekend by forcing out one of the government's top prosecutors, Geoffrey Berman, who was investigating a number of the president's associates.
But those were afterthoughts during Trump's roughly 90 minute remarks. He stuck to many of his usual themes, attacking the press frequently and focusing on cultural fights that energize his base.
There was no mention of Floyd's death or the Juneteenth holiday that occurred a day earlier. Trump's references to the coronavirus were mostly lighthearted, and he made only a passing mention of the rising death toll.
The president said his handling of the virus has been "phenomenal." He also referred to testing as a "double-edged sword" and quipped that he had instructed aides to "slow the testing down" to avoid identifying too many cases.
"It’s a disease that without question has more names than any disease. I can name kung flu," Trump said, using a racist nickname for the virus that causes COVID-19, which originated in China.
Trump went on an extended riff about his speech at West Point last weekend, where his unsteady walk down a ramp and uneasy attempt to take a drink of water prompted speculation about his health. When he demonstrated he could drink a glass of water with ease, the crowd erupted in applause.
The president dug in on his opposition to growing calls to remove statues and rename military facilities bearing the names of Confederate leaders, painting it as a uniting issue for his supporters.
"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," Trump said. "We’re not conforming. That’s why we’re here, actually."
Saturday's rally was billed as Trump's grand return to the campaign trail after more than three months away because of the pandemic. Officials viewed a boisterous rally as an opportunity to boost the president's spirits and reset momentum as Trump saw his deficit grow in polls against Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee.
Recent polls have shown Biden leading Trump by a healthy margin nationally and holding a steady lead in several swing states.
Trump himself portrayed the event as the beginning of his reelection campaign, despite having hosted an official kick-off rally in Florida last year.
The campaign boasted that more than 1 million tickets had been requested for the Tulsa event, an indication of the enthusiasm it felt was prevalent even if only a fraction of that number actually attended in person.
Campaign manager Brad Parscale anticipated a "festival-like" atmosphere with musical acts, outdoor speeches from the president and vice president and more.
Trump predicted it would be "a hell of a night."
The event attracted immense media coverage, but the images on the ground fell short of expectations set by the campaign, and some of the headlines are likely to anger Trump.
Hours before the event started, the campaign announced that six staffers had tested positive for the coronavirus after surrogates spent the week insisting it was safe for supporters.
Trump and Pence scrapped planned outdoor speeches after the overflow crowd near the arena was practically nonexistent by the time the two leaders had arrived on site.
And inside the BOK Center, which holds up to 19,000 people, the crowd was well below capacity, with large swaths of empty seats in the upper levels.
The pandemic hung over the event throughout the week and was the elephant in the room on Saturday. Public health officials advised the Trump campaign against holding the indoor event, which they warned could serve as a breeding ground for new coronavirus cases.
The campaign provided hand sanitizer, conducted temperature checks and handed out masks to attendees.
But wearing a mask was optional once inside, and the vast majority opted not to do so. Attendees were packed tightly together on the floor of the arena, where many stood for hours before Trump took the stage.