Amid pandemic and protests, Trump relaunches campaign in Tulsa

Donald Trump relaunched his reelection campaign Saturday in Tulsa, hosting a rally that inflamed national debates on race, the coronavirus and the general tenor of the country less than five months before the next presidential election. 

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President Donald Trump talks at a campaign event in Tulsa on June 20, 2020. DYLAN GOFORTH/The Frontier

Claiming America was “so lucky I’m president,” Donald Trump relaunched his reelection campaign Saturday in Tulsa, hosting a rally that inflamed national debates on race, the coronavirus and the general tenor of the country less than fives month before the next presidential election. 

“The choice is simple, you want to bow before the left wing mob or do you want to stand up tall and proud as Americans?” Trump told a crowd that filled a little more than half of the BOK Center in downtown Tulsa.

Trump has held campaign rallies before in which he deploys an unscripted diatribe tailor made for his base of passionate supporters. But following weeks of nationwide protests over police brutality and systemic racism, and months after a global pandemic brought much of American life to a standstill, Trump’s first rally in three months drew the attention of the political world. 

Trump was criticized for holding the nation’s first large indoor event since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, which he downplayed early on and once referred to as a hoax designed to derail his reelection. 

At Saturday’s rally, Trump said he “saved hundreds of thousands of lives” by acting quickly to stop the spread of “the Chinese virus,” his term for COVID-19. 

Local health officials had urged government officials to reconsider the rally, especially as the state’s coronavirus cases had spiked in recent days. 

“We’re concerned,” Bruce Dart, executive director of the Tulsa Health Department, said earlier this week. “I mean people coming together without taking any precautions is what causes the virus to transmit. It gives the virus the ability to transmit from person to person.”

Rally attendees had their temperatures checked as they entered the arena and free masks were offered, although very few people wore masks during the rally. 

Gov. Kevin Stitt speaks to the media on Saturday, June 20, 2020, outside of the BOK Center while awaiting the arrival of President Donald Trump. DYLAN GOFORTH/The Frontier

Gov. Kevin Stitt said Trump’s selection of Tulsa to restart his campaign was a credit to the state’s response to the coronavirus pandemic. While confirmed cases are growing, Stitt said hospitalizations and deaths remained stable.

“My question back to those folks that want people to bunker in place is when is the right time to open back up?” Stitt told reporters outside the BOK Center before Trump’s rally. 

Stitt also said he expected former Vice President Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee, to hold campaign events in Oklahoma. 

“I’m assuming candidate Biden will have some rallies as soon as he gets out of the basement,” said Stitt, referring to Biden quarantining at his Delaware home during the pandemic, a point Trump also hit on. 

Trump criticized Biden’s mental capacity and accused him of often being confused. 

“If Joe is elected, he will surrender your country to these mobsters,” Trump said. 

Campaign officials had said tickets to Trump’s rally exceeded capacity as nearly 1 million online requests had been made. When Trump took the stage the BOK Center’s lower bowl was filled but the majority of seats in the upper level were empty. 

Trump had planned to address a crowd outside of the arena but that appearance was called off when few people showed.

Attendees gather as they await President Donald Trump’s speech in Tulsa on June 20, 2020. DYLAN GOFORTH/The Frontier

Trump’s campaign blamed protestors and the media for the smaller than expected crowd. 

“Radical protestors, coupled with a relentless onslaught from the media, attempted to frighten off the President’s supporters,” said Tim Murtaugh, director of communications for Trump’s reelection campaign. 

“We are proud of the thousands who stuck it out.” 

Trump referred to the protestors outside as “thugs” and credited himself for ending violent protests in other cities, although he said he could do more. 

“But I said let it simmer for a while,” Trump said. “Let people see what radical left Democrats will do to our country.”

The other side of American politics was just a few blocks away as protestors marched through the streets of downtown Tulsa, rebuking Trump for visiting the city during the Juneteenth weekend, the holiday celebrating the end of slavery. 

Trump’s rally was also just a few blocks from Greenwood, the Tulsa neighborhood that was once a hub of Black enterprise but was burned down in 1921 by a mob of white Tulsans. 

While protests began after the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer, it has spread to target racism in other sectors of life. 

Trump criticized the recent removal of Confederate statues, saying it “desecrates our monuments.”

“If you want to save that heritage of ours, we have a great heritage, you’re so lucky I’m president, that’s all I can say,” Trump said. 

Vice President Mike Pence talks to the crowd at President Donald Trump’s campaign event in Tulsa on June 20, 2020. DYLAN GOFORTH/The Frontier

Before Trump’s speech, Vice President Mike Pence presented the president’s reelection platform — pro-Second Amendment, pro-law enforcement, anti-abortion and tough on terrorism. 

“This president has shown leadership in one of the most challenging times any of us can remember,” Pence said. 

Trump addressed some policy positions, but spent more than 15 minutes of his speech talking about his visit to West Point this month and criticism he received over how he walked down a ramp and drank water.  

“Anyways, that’s a long story, but I have lived with the ramp and the water since I left West Point,” Trump said. “It’s so unfair.”

At one point Trump drank water one-handed and thousands of attendees responded by chanting “four more years.”

Trump spoke in front of teleprompters but seemed to speak without a script, sometimes stopping his thought to call the media “fake,” “sick,” and “the most dishonest human beings,” resulting in boos from the crowd.

Attendees awaiting President Donald Trump in the hours leading up to his speech at the BOK Center in Tulsa on June 20, 2020, chant “Make America Great Again.” DYLAN GOFORTH/The Frontier

Trump did propose legislation that would jail a person for one year if they burn the American Flag, urging Oklahoma Sentors Jim Inhofe and James Lankford, both Republicans, to draft the bill. 

Trump also criticized NFL players for saying they will kneel during the National Anthem to protest police brutality. 

“I thought we won that fight,” Trump said. 

Trump also said he wanted Tulsa’s John Hope Franklin Reconciliation Park to be placed on the African American Civil Rights Network, which recognizes the “significance of the civil rights movement as a crucial element in the evolution of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.”

After nearly two hours, Trump ended his speech with a warning that a Biden presidency would lead to a ban on hydraulic fracking, increase abortions, lead to extremist on the U.S. Supreme Court and “take away your guns through repeal of your Second Amendment.”

“I ran for politics just once in my life and I became president,” Trump said. “Hopefully, if you get out and vote, we will do it one more time … and our country will never ever be stronger.”

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Ben Felder

Based in Oklahoma City, Ben Felder joined The Frontier in 2019 and covers education and politics. He previously covered education and government as an investigative reporter at The Oklahoman before becoming the newspaper’s news director. Felder can be reached at ben@readfrontier.com. Follow him on Twitter @benfelder_okc
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