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Disappointing crowd size at Trump's rally falls short of campaign's expectations
DONALD Trump's first campaign rally since the coronavirus swept the US will be remembered more for what the president would rather forget, as his attempt to reset his re-election bid drew a disappointing crowd in a safe state.
The event in downtown Tulsa, Oklahoma, on Saturday attracted far fewer supporters than Mr Trump and his advisers had promised. And it was overshadowed by continuing criticism of his response to the pandemic and to nationwide protests against police brutality.
The ouster of the top federal prosecutor in New York emerged as a fresh controversy just hours before the president touched down in the city.
Mr Trump and his campaign manager, Brad Parscale, had boasted that a million people requested tickets online for the Tulsa rally, and Mr Trump flatly promised there wouldn't be an empty seat. He had planned to speak to crowds both outdoors and inside, but scrapped the outdoor remarks after a scant showing. Inside Tulsa's BOK Center, upper-level seating was mostly empty.
The campaign blamed protesters, claiming they had blocked Trump supporters from passing through security checkpoints. That could not be verified, and the Tulsa police department said in a tweet that protesters had been "overwhelmingly" peaceful. The poor showing added to indications that Mr Trump's re-election is far from certain and that his campaign risks derailment.
He has fallen behind his Democratic opponent, former Vice-President Joe Biden, in national polls and surveys of key battleground states. In May, Mr Biden's campaign outraised Mr Trump's for the first time, while Mr Trump's campaign spent twice as much money.
Mr Trump declared on Saturday that he would win re-election, despite recent polls, and alluded to nationwide protests against police violence against people of colour. "I stand before you today to declare that the silent majority is stronger than ever before," Mr Trump said. "We are the party of Abraham Lincoln, and we are the party of law and order".
He painted Mr Biden as a befuddled puppet of the Democratic Party's leftmost flank. "Does anybody honestly think he controls these radical maniacs?" Mr Trump said, at one point asking the crowd: "Do you know what he says to his wife, when he's not confusing her with his sister?"
In the hours before his arrival, Mr Trump courted new controversy as Geoffrey Berman, the chief federal prosecutor in New York, resigned following a remarkable stand-off with Attorney General William Barr, who said the president had fired him. But Mr Trump told reporters as he departed the White House for Tulsa that Mr Barr was responsible for Mr Berman's removal, saying: "I'm not involved".
The president has struggled to maintain enthusiasm for his campaign as the coronavirus ravaged the country and cities nationwide were convulsed by protests following the death of George Floyd last month at the hands of Minneapolis police. Over the course of a week, a damaging new book by Mr Trump's former national security adviser, John Bolton, and the ousting of Mr Berman on Saturday added to the president's travails.
Mr Trump's large, raucous rallies were the lifeblood of his 2016 campaign, and he had begun to increase their frequency late last year as he prepared for re-election. But the coronavirus outbreak ruined his best argument for another term - the strength of the US economy, now in recession - and sidetracked his campaign's favourite tactic, making rallies impossible since March.
Saturday's rally marked a return to script for a president who has long thrived on the crowds and sharp partisanship of the events. It was also meant to be a declaration of victory over the virus - the administration has touted Oklahoma as a reopening success story, although cases of the disease spiked in the state ahead of the rally.
Local health officials had recommended delaying the event, but the campaign pressed ahead. Some campaign advance staff in Oklahoma tested positive for the virus, news that emerged shortly before Mr Trump departed the White House. Masks were distributed to attendees as they entered the arena, but few people were seen wearing them.
Mr Trump dedicated portions of his speech to the virus, at one point calling it the "Kung Flu", one of a handful of racially insensitive comments.
He warned that conceding to demands by police brutality protesters to abolish law enforcement would leave the wife of a travelling salesman vulnerable to "a very tough hombre". And he said that a Democratic congresswoman who is a Somali refugee, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, sought to "make the government of our country just like the country from where she came".
In his speech, which ran roughly for one hour and 44 minutes, he also sought to play down the risks of the pandemic. "Testing is a double-edged sword," he said. "When you do testing to that extent you're going to find more people. So I said to my people, slow the testing down." A White House official, who asked not to be identified, later said the president was joking when he spoke about slowing down testing. BLOOMBERG