What to Watch For at Trump’s Tulsa Campaign Rally


  • President Trump is scheduled to attend two events in Tulsa, Okla., on Saturday: at 7 p.m. Eastern time, he will deliver brief remarks at what the White House called a “Great American Comeback Celebration” event, and then he will attend a rally inside the BOK Center scheduled for 8 p.m.

  • This is Mr. Trump’s first rally since March 2. Joining him will be Vice President Mike Pence, Senator James Lankford of Oklahoma and almost a dozen House members, among others.

  • Tulsa health officials have expressed concerns about conducting the rally in a large, indoor arena while coronavirus cases in Oklahoma are on the rise. The city’s top health official recommended postponing the rally.

  • The rally was originally scheduled for Friday, June 19, the Juneteenth holiday. Mr. Trump moved it a day after public pressure and quiet lobbying from some West Wing officials and outside allies.

  • Times reporters are in Tulsa and will provide coverage of the rally and events in the city at nytimes.com.

TULSA, Okla. — President Trump is determined to try to have a political comeback rally in spite of the devastating health and economic crises that have unfolded on his watch, as well as the nationwide protests against racism that have left him on the defensive.

But he is walking on the edge in several ways.

He hopes to pack the 19,000-seat BOK Center and show that America is reopening, but he doesn’t want to bear responsibility for creating a “super spreader” event that sickens his most die-hard supporters. (See: waivers the campaign is requiring from attendees so it can’t be blamed if people catch the coronavirus.)

The health guidance for rallygoers reflects those contradictory ambitions. Brad Parscale, Mr. Trump’s campaign manager, said he would distribute masks outside the arena and wear one himself, but wouldn’t require people to wear them inside. Kayleigh McEnany, the White House press secretary, said Friday she did not plan to cover her face.

Then there is the timing: Mr. Trump will arrive in Tulsa a day after Juneteenth, and at a time when many Americans are grappling with the country’s racist history. His campaign is trying to spin the visit as an effort to shed light on African-American history, rather than to be insensitive to it.

The Trump campaign does not plan to enforce any mask wearing or social distancing policies inside the arena. That means it will be up to people heading inside a crowded arena to care for themselves.

The line outside the arena may be the first tell of how the night will unfold.

Will it look like the line at a Whole Foods in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, where people give each other a generous six-foot berth? Or like the packed beaches in Miami on the first weekend after reopening?

The president has suggested that wearing a mask is an anti-Trump political statement. Do his supporters try to prove their allegiance by risking their health?

Mr. Trump thrust this rally into the nationwide conversation about racism when he originally scheduled it for the Juneteenth holiday that commemorates the end of slavery.

But Mr. Trump rarely talks about injustice or violence against black Americas. He prefers to use wild hyperbole like how he has “done more for the black community than any president since Abraham Lincoln.” He also has a penchant for using racist language, such as his remark last month that “when the looting starts, the shooting starts.”

So: What does the president say about race on the day after Juneteenth, in a city that had one of the worst episodes of racial violence in the nation’s history?

Many Oklahoma officials now acknowledge that racist past in Tulsa, where a white mob massacred black people in 1921 and destroyed a prosperous black neighborhood. That openness has helped support racial reconciliation.

But Mr. Trump and his allies rarely show that kind of openness. On Friday, Mr. Pence refused to use the words “black lives matter” in an interview with a Pennsylvania news station, saying instead that “all lives matter” — a phrase that dilutes the specific violence suffered by black Americans for centuries.

How Mr. Trump decides to talk about race will be one of the biggest takeaways of the night.

Cooped up for three months, Mr. Trump has been acting at times like a caged animal, lashing out at reporters and making unsubstantiated claims on Twitter — suggesting at one point that an older protester who was injured by a police officer in Buffalo was an antifa provocateur who staged the assault.

His poll numbers, in turn, have suffered and now show him trailing former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. both nationally and in critical battleground states. Republican allies have been desperate for Mr. Trump to regain the familiar rally stage, where he first established himself as a political star and where he has become accustomed to letting off steam.

But for years now, Mr. Trump’s rallies have not shocked and awed the way they once did. Has the three-month break from the rally circuit created a pent-up demand among Mr. Trump’s supporters, and breathed life back into Mr. Trump’s campaign, or has the “MAGA” rally lost its luster?

Will there be clashes between Trump supporters and protesters — and if so, how heated do those clashes get?

On Friday, there were signs of tension. As black Tulsans gathered to celebrate Juneteenth, one man at an encampment of Trump supporters about a mile away wore a shirt with a racist message claiming that blacks were slave owners, too. Several also applauded Mr. Trump’s veiled threat to protesters of his rally.

Meanwhile, in a building overlooking the road where rallygoers had set up, signs hanging in the windows spelled out an obscenity directed at Mr. Trump, as well as messages like, “Covid is real. And so is systemic racism.” By Friday evening, several people in an entertainment district in Tulsa were boarding up stores ahead of possible unrest.

Mr. Trump has been downplaying the risk of attending his rally, even as the number of infections in Tulsa and across the country continues to rise and some companies are already beginning to shut down again.

In an interview with The Wall Street Journal, Mr. Trump claimed that Covid-19 testing was overrated and suggested that Americans were wearing masks not for their own protection, but to demonstrate that they do not support him. Will he downplay health concerns on the political stage as the pandemic rages on?



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