June 22, 2020
Donald Trump’s campaign advisers had it all mapped out: A blowout rally in Oklahoma — coupled with a withering ad launched days earlier questioning Joe Biden’s mental acuity — would finally shift the focus to the elusive Democrat amid the worst stretch of Trump’s presidency.
The ad tested well, and Trump attacked Biden extensively during the Saturday night event, saying the former vice president has “surrendered to his party and to the left-wing mob.” But his remarks were lost in a meandering and grievance-filled two-hour speech, which included a lengthy rendition of him drinking water during his West Point commencement speech a week earlier.
“His lines going after Biden were very effective, particularly on Biden being a tool of the radical left. But I’d like to see that focused message take up more space in the overall speech, because it will resonate with wobbly suburbanites,” said Scott Jennings, who was a top political adviser in the George W. Bush White House. “He shouldn’t waste his best lines in an ocean of stuff that won’t ultimately work or matter.”
This account of what went wrong in Tulsa and the reckoning underway in the aftermath is based on interviews with more than a half-dozen reelection campaign and White House officials. The partly-empty arena was the biggest embarrassment and has received the lion’s share of media attention. But the issues surrounding the rally — an event that his advisers unanimously saw as a turning point for Trump — extended beyond crowd size and raised questions about the strength of his campaign less than five months until the election.
Trump was described as furious over the negative media coverage of the rally, much of which focused on the president’s failure to fill the arena and the idea that the president’s loyalists were cooling in their support. Some people close to the president suspected he’d been overeager to restart rallies at a time when the public was still reeling from the coronavirus pandemic and racial protests.
The planning stage
Planning for the Oklahoma event began a few weeks prior. With much of the country still in lockdown, campaign officials had few options to choose from. They zeroed in on a small number of states with loose restrictions, including South Dakota — where Trump is planning a July 3 visit to view fireworks from Mount Rushmore — and Oklahoma. After settling on Oklahoma, they narrowed the location to Oklahoma City or Tulsa. They picked Tulsa, where the state’s Republican governor and lieutenant governor are from and because they saw local officials as more Trump-friendly.
But they soon faced a major complication: Following an uproar over the initial decision to hold the rally on Juneteenth, a holiday celebrating the emancipation of slaves, the president pushed the event a day later.
Still, interest in the event was high. About 1.1 million people registered to attend, forcing aides to begin making plans to stage an added outdoor event. Aides knew the 1.1 million figure was inflated: After sorting through the sign-ups — a process that included looking at registrants’ voting histories — they determined that about 300,000 were fake.
To winnow down the likely audience further, advisers estimated that only between 200,000 and 300,000 people lived within immediate driving distance. Worst-case scenario, they concluded, was an audience of about 60,000.
But when they woke up Saturday morning, Trump advisers realized things were going downhill. Protesters were convening outside the arena. News emerged that a half-dozen advance staffers had tested positive for coronavirus, a revelation that angered the president ahead of his departure for Oklahoma and further amplified fears that the event could spread the disease. Hours before the rally was to get underway, it became clear to the president’s lieutenants that a debacle was underway and that there would be a patchwork of empty seats.
Making matters worse for the campaign was its initial declaration that 1 million people had signed up to see Trump in Tulsa, a boast that was now destined to fall on its face.
Struggling with how to take on Biden
While a packed arena was needed to project strength, the campaign was determined to use the rally as the kickoff in a sustained effort to sow doubt about Biden’s capacity to be president.
Trump advisers have long been convinced that if the race is a referendum on him, rather than a choice between him and Biden, Trump will likely lose. Yet they’ve vacillated over how to go after the former vice president, especially as he’s stayed out of the spotlight during the pandemic. Some aides want to cast him as as too cozy with China; others are eager to portray him as too old and on the decline mentally, or as a Beltway insider.
Trump himself has been surprisingly hesitant to engage his opponent — at least by Trump standards — and some advisers think he’s struggling with how to take him on. During an interview with POLITICO last week, the president largely turned his attention away from Biden, and instead was preoccupied with former national security adviser John Bolton.
In the days leading up to the rally, campaign and White House officials crafted a speech that focused on portraying Biden as mentally diminished and beholden to the liberal fringe.
Trump delivered the anti-Biden script on stage, yet it was his digressions — defending his water-drinking and ramp-walking abilities, referring to coronavirus as “Kung Flu,” and noting that he told his staff to “slow” down coronavirus testing to head off spikes in reported cases — that ended up driving post-rally headlines. Trump aides said later he was joking about the testing slowdown and was trying to illustrate his point that more testing reveals more cases.
“They test and they test. We had tests that people don’t know what’s going on. We got tests. We got another one over here, the young man’s 10 years old. He’s got the sniffles. He’ll recover in about 15 minutes. That’s the case,” Trump said during the speech.
No more mega-rallies?
Party officials say the Oklahoma mishap has scrambled plans for future arena-style rallies. One idea is to hold smaller events at outdoor venues like airport hangars or amphitheaters. There’s also discussion of holding them in non-urban areas to make it harder for protesters to gather en masse.
But with Trump trailing badly in an array of battleground states, some aides are beginning to wonder whether the Oklahoma snafu portends bigger changes. Some recalled that George Gigicos, an alum of Trump’s first campaign who oversaw the staging of the rallies, was fired after Trump expressed unhappiness with how a 2017 event in Phoenix went.
Rumors of a potential shakeup have hung over the Trump campaign for weeks. Many directed blame toward campaign manager Brad Parscale in the aftermath of the Saturday night rally, though Trump aides insisted no change was forthcoming. Parscale is close to the president and Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner, who has broad power over the reelection apparatus.
The campaign recently promoted longtime Trump political adviser Bill Stepien to deputy campaign manager and re-hired 2016 aide Jason Miller — moves designed to provide additional support to Parscale.
But after months of being stuck in the White House, some got the sense Trump was relieved to get back in front of a crowd — even one a lot smaller than planned.
Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), who traveled to and from the rally with Trump aboard Air Force One, said the president spent part of the trip home quizzing people on how things had gone.
“I think he thought, ‘Well this is a good start. We’ll go from here,” said Cole. “I think he’s ready to get on the campaign trail. You get better as you go along, and that’s the way he probably looks at it.”