It was supposed to be the great return for President Donald Trump to the campaign trail Saturday night with a “mega rally” in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The president promised no empty seats and his campaign said they received more than one million ticket requests.
Instead, as Air Force One touched down at 5:51pm local time, staffers were faced with three massive problems: the venue that could hold nearly 20,000 supporters was only a third full, the overflow space set up outside the arena was in the process of being dismantled due to low attendance numbers and some key personnel who were already in Tulsa were unable to help because they were in quarantine after testing positive for the coronavirus.
Since he entered presidential politics five years ago, Trump often brags about his ability to attract massive crowds. In fact, crowd size is so important to him, that Trump made it the mission of his first press secretary to defend the size of his inauguration crowd in the very first White House briefing of his administration.
With missteps between the response to the coronavirus pandemic and the failure to address the killing of George Floyd — instead stoking racial divides — the trip to Tulsa was what many aides hoped would be a needed reset for Trump — the 2020 campaign kickoff, as some described.
Yet after first being planned on Juneteenth, a day that commemorates the end of slavery, the president was forced to change the date after many cried foul.
The weekend was instead dictated by Attorney General Bill Barr’s abrupt Friday night firing of Geoffrey Berman, the now-former U.S. attorney for the southern district of New York who — at first — refused to step down. As he was departing the White House Saturday afternoon, Trump told reporters he was “not involved” in the decision, though just minutes earlier Barr said in a letter that the president, himself, had fired him.
“Well, this is off to a great start,” one aide to the president said following those comments.
And it didn’t stop there. On Air Force One, en route to Tulsa, Trump was livid at learning that news leaked about six members of his campaign’s advance team testing positive for the coronavirus earlier in the day, multiple sources told ABC News. On the ground in Tulsa, some staffers were growing distraught as word spread that some of their coworkers had come down with the virus and were being moved to quarantine. On Monday, the campaign confirmed that two additional campaign staffers who attended the rally tested positive for the coronavirus.
The campaign said the staffers were in attendance during the entire event and were “wearing masks.”
At the rally, the president railed at aides backstage ahead of his speech, demanding answers for low turnout, how the rally was organized and why the arena wasn’t configured differently, multiple sources said.
Aides to the president quickly pointed the finger at Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale, who for months has faced criticism about his ability to successfully run a presidential campaign. Rumors of him being on the chopping block resurfaced, with some quickly predicting that the Tulsa rally debacle would be the final straw.
Senior campaign staffers called the evening a “self-inflicted wound” and criticized Parscale for overpromising a rowdy crowd and turnout numbers that haven’t been seen before.
In a statement, however, Trump campaign communications director Tim Murtaugh said, “Brad has built an amazing team and is doing a great job. He has a strong 10-year relationship with the president and the Trump family.”
And in the aftermath of the rally, the president and his campaign have pointed to record ratings on FOX News in defense of the weekend event. “WOW! The Trump Rally gives @FoxNews the “LARGEST SATURDAY NIGHT AUDIENCE IN ITS HUSTORY”. Isn’t it amazing that virtually nobody in the Lamestream Media is reporting this rather major feat!,” Trump tweeted on Monday.
Few understood the decision to go to Tulsa in the first place, with many thinking instead it would have been smarter to target a battleground state that the president needs to win re-election, like Florida or Arizona, senior-level campaign sources told ABC News.
One Trump campaign aide called the rally a “huge misfire” that came at a time when the president’s team needed a win more than ever, with sinking polling numbers and presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden out-raising the Trump campaign and Republican National Committee for the first time in May.
Another aide said putting out the “ridiculous” one million ticket request number was “suicide.”
Behind the scenes, as it became clear that the turnout would be far lower than expected, campaign aides scrambled to come up with a defense, ultimately latching on to social media posts showing protests near the area and blaming a familiar and favorite target of the president: the media.
“I’ve been watching the Fake News for weeks now, and everything is negative. ‘Don’t go, don’t come, don’t do anything,” Trump said at the top of his rally speech. “You are warriors, thank you,” he added, thanking those in attendance.
White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany on Monday disputed reports that the president was irritated with the size of the rally crowd, and instead said he was “very pleased” with the event.
“The president was very pleased with the rally. I was with him. And I just have to say these media reports that he was somehow furious on the plane — there is no grounding in fact to that. I was with him on Marine One on the way there, on Marine One after. He was very — very pleased with how the rally went,” McEnany said at Monday’s press briefing.
With Parcasle’s job on the rocks, 2016 Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski — who also is a current adviser to the president’s re-election campaign — took a rare shot at the president’s current political team, calling the execution of the Tulsa rally a “fundamental mistake.”
“I think a fundamental mistake was made. Over promising and under-delivering is the biggest mistake you can make in politics,” Lewandowski said in an interview with radio program New Hampshire Today with Jack Heath on Monday.
Lewandowski said that when he was campaign manager in 2016 “we never did something like this,” adding that the team needs to “go back and re-evaluate the system in which people were getting those tickets and determining if they were real.”