TULSA, Okla. — President Trump’s attempt to revive his re-election campaign sputtered badly on Saturday night as he traveled to Tulsa for his first mass rally in months and found a far smaller crowd than his aides had promised him, then delivered a disjointed speech that did not address the multiple crises facing the nation or scandals battering him in Washington.
The weakness of Mr. Trump’s drawing power and political skills, in a state that voted for him overwhelmingly and in a format that he favors, raised new questions about his electoral prospects for a second term at a time when his poll numbers were already falling. And rather than speak to the wide cross-section of Americans who say they are concerned about police violence and systemic racism, he continued to use racist language, describing the coronavirus as “Kung Flu.”
While the president’s campaign had claimed that more than a million people had sought tickets for the rally, the 19,000-seat BOK Center was at least one-third empty during the rally. A second, outdoor venue was so sparsely attended that he and Vice President Mike Pence both canceled appearances there.
Tim Murtaugh, a spokesman for the Trump campaign, falsely blamed the small numbers on “radical protesters” and the news media who he said had frightened away supporters. But there were few protests in the area and no sizable effort to block entrances, and there was a strong security presence.
Mr. Trump was furious about the unused outdoor stage and the comparatively thin crowd in the stadium, according to two people familiar with his reaction. News broadcasts carried video of the partially empty stadium, and even the Drudge Report, a reliably conservative website, carried an all-caps headline that said “MAGA LESS MEGA” with a picture of rows and rows of empty blue seats.
The disappointing turnout came as Mr. Trump already found himself under siege about his sudden firing of the U.S. attorney in Manhattan and his losing legal battle over the release of a memoir full of damaging revelations by John R. Bolton, his former national security adviser. And in Tulsa, Mr. Trump faced criticism for ignoring pleas from officials about health risks to rallygoers and for restarting his “Make America Great Again!” rallies in a city where a white mob massacred hundreds of black residents 99 years ago.
In rambling, grievance-filled remarks, Mr. Trump made no reference to the Tulsa massacre of 1921 or to George Floyd, whose death at the hands of a white police officer in Minneapolis last month spurred global demands for racial justice. He also did not mention Juneteenth, which marks the end of slavery in the United States and fell just a day before his rally.
Instead, the president railed about “left-wing radicals” who he falsely claimed were rioting in cities across the country and praised police officers who “get injured, they don’t complain. They’re incredible” while attempting to stop looters and rioters.
“The unhinged left-wing mob is trying to vandalize our history, desecrate our monuments, our beautiful monuments, tear down our statues and punish, cancel and persecute anyone who does not conform to their demands for absolute and total control,” Mr. Trump said. He was referring in part to attempts to remove Confederate monuments, efforts that have support in both parties.
The president once again shrugged off the threat from the coronavirus, which he also called the “Chinese virus” at one point, and bragged that he has done “a phenomenal job” fighting the pandemic. He acknowledged that increased testing for the virus revealed more cases of infection, which he felt made the country look bad.
“So I said to my people, ‘slow the testing down,’” he said.
Many of the thousands of Trump supporters at the rally did not wear masks or stand six feet apart — health precautions that Mr. Trump himself has ignored. The campaign conducted temperature checks and handed out masks, yet health experts remained concerned that the event could be a dangerous incubator for the virus, spreading through the building’s recirculated air.
It was unclear whether fears about the virus kept Trump supporters away despite the president’s repeated efforts to dismiss the need for social distancing and other precautions.
A few hours before the event, the campaign disclosed that six Trump campaign staff members who had been working on the rally had tested positive for the coronavirus during a routine screening. Two members of the Secret Service in Tulsa also tested positive for the virus, according to people familiar with the matter. Mr. Trump, who was made aware of the sick campaign aides before departing for the rally, was incensed that the news was made public, according to two people familiar with his reaction.
Minor confrontations between protesters and Trump supporters broke out throughout the evening. A few minutes before Mr. Trump began speaking, several dozen protesters marched about a block away from the entrance to the arena, bearing signs with messages like “Black Lives Matter” and “Go home Donald.”
Trump supporters yelled “USA! USA!” as they walked by. “Go home, racists!” the protesters chanted as the crowd swelled to hundreds of people. Some heated conversations broke out along Boulder Avenue in downtown Tulsa, but when one man tried to start an “all lives matter” chant as a man in a Black Lives Matter shirt spoke, it did not catch on.
While rallies are Mr. Trump’s favorite events, election-year politics has changed since his last one, on March 2. The coronavirus has largely shut down the campaign trail, and more recently the national political conversation has been dominated by a fierce debate over police violence against black Americans after the killing of Mr. Floyd.
But the altered political landscape has had little effect on the president, whom advisers describe as feeling like a caged animal during the national lockdown that forced him to abandon most travel. They say he is determined to recapture the excitement of his pre-virus campaign rallies, but this one seemed unlikely to offer much relief to Mr. Trump.
He flew to Oklahoma amid mounting questions about the firing of Geoffrey S. Berman, the U.S. attorney in Manhattan, whose office had investigated some of the president’s closest allies, imprisoning Michael D. Cohen, his former personal lawyer, and beginning an inquiry into Rudolph W. Giuliani, his current lawyer.
On Saturday afternoon, Attorney General William P. Barr announced that Mr. Trump had personally approved Mr. Berman’s firing. But soon afterward, as Mr. Trump left the White House for the trip to Tulsa, the president said that “we have a very capable attorney general, so that’s really up to him. I’m not involved.”
The campaign had chosen to return first to Oklahoma, which the president won by 36 points in 2016, assuming his appearance would be wildly popular there. Aides to Mr. Trump spent the week boasting about enormous interest from people in the rally, and Mr. Trump bragged on Saturday as he left for Oklahoma that “the crowds are unbelievable,” which proved false.
Some users of social media said on Saturday night that teenagers helped keep attendance at the rally down by seeking tickets they did not intend to use. TikTok and Twitter users posted that they had registered potentially hundreds of thousands of tickets for Trump’s campaign rally as a prank after @TeamTrump tweeted asking supporters to register for free tickets.
During his speech, Mr. Trump delivered a defensive, 15-minute explanation of images that showed him ambling slowly down a ramp after delivering the commencement address at the West Point military academy last weekend. He blamed his slow walk on “leather soles” on his shoes and said he was trying not to fall on his behind.
He also took several sips of water out of a glass after video at the West Point event showed him struggling to bring a glass up to his lips. He said he was trying to make sure he did not spill the water on his tie. The crowd applauded wildly.
Many people in Tulsa, worried about the record numbers of coronavirus cases in Oklahoma in recent days, did not welcome the rally. On Saturday afternoon, local black leaders held a news conference in the city’s historic Greenwood neighborhood, where the 1921 massacre took place, pleading with the city’s mayor, G.T. Bynum, a Trump ally, to cancel the rally.
In the streets around the BOK Center before the rally, the president’s supporters — some of whom had lined up for days in the hopes of ensuring a seat in the stadium — gathered not far from Black Lives Matter protesters and people in town for the Juneteenth celebration. Many wore red MAGA hats while others wore caps with patriotic emblems or colors. Some waved red, white and blue banners with the Trump 2020 logo, the American flag, or the “Don’t Tread on Me” flag. Some wore them like capes. Almost none wore masks.
“If it is God’s will that I get coronavirus that is the will of the Almighty. I will not live in fear,” said Robert Montanelli, a resident of Broken Arrow, a Tulsa suburb.
The president and his advisers hope the return to the campaign trail will help deflect attention from a daily stream of crises engulfing the White House. On Saturday, a federal judge refused to block the release of Mr. Bolton’s book, though he said the former national security aide may be personally liable for revealing classified information.
People close to Mr. Trump also said that the lack of regular adulation that he receives from the cheering crowds since the coronavirus lockdowns has left him morose and irritable. And his advisers had hoped that the rally would be a positive outlet for his energy, as opposed to his Twitter feed, where he has posted several self-destructive messages in the last several weeks.
After the rally, Mr. Trump’s spokesman searched for a way that Mr. Trump might be happy despite the poor turnout, claiming in a statement that millions of online rally viewers amounted to “a massive audience that Joe Biden can only dream of.”
Driven in part by poll numbers showing his support slipping as he prepares to face former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. in the fall, Mr. Trump had initially scheduled his rally for Friday. He later said he was unaware of the significance of the Juneteenth holiday.
Under fire, the campaign moved the event to Saturday, leaving Mr. Trump to make the wild claim that he had revealed the existence of the holiday to many people despite the fact that millions of black Americans have celebrated Juneteenth annually for years.
By late morning in Tulsa on Saturday, a steadily growing line of rallygoers had assembled. Some had traveled significant distances, but many other attendees were Tulsa locals or came from nearby states, like Kansas and Missouri, or elsewhere in deep-red Oklahoma. The crowd was overwhelmingly white, and most people ranged in age from their 40s to their 60s, though a sizable number of attendees also brought their children.
In more than a dozen interviews, no one expressed serious concerns about coronavirus risk at the rally.
“It’s all fake,” said Mike Alcorn, 40, who works in maintenance and lives in Wichita, Kan. “They’re just making the numbers up. I haven’t seen anybody die, not from coronavirus. I don’t even know anybody who’s got it.”