WASHINGTON/TULSA, Okla. (Reuters) – Amid a still-strong pandemic and after weeks of protests about racial inequality, President Donald Trump prepared to hold a rally with thousands of supporters in Oklahoma on Saturday in an effort to reinvigorate his re-election campaign.
Trump has come under fire for his responses to the coronavirus and to the death of George Floyd, a Black man who died in the custody of Minneapolis police.
He drew more criticism for his decision to hold his first rally since schools and businesses were shut in March to stop the spread of coronavirus in Tulsa, the site of the country’s bloodiest outbreaks of racist violence against Black Americans some 100 years ago.
Hours before the rally, Trump’s campaign announced six members of its advance team had tested positive for COVID-19.
Only a handful of attendees wore masks inside the arena.
Oklahoma has reported a surge in new COVID-19 infections in recent days, and the state’s department of health has warned that attendees at the 19,000-seat BOK Center venue face an increased risk of catching the virus.
Trump and Vice President Mike Pence canceled addresses to an expected “overflow” crowd after “protesters interfered with supporters,” Trump campaign spokesman Tim Murtaugh said according to a pool report.
Inside the arena, many seats remained empty ahead of Trump’s 7 p.m. (8 p.m. ET) address.
Trump campaign officials had said those wanting to attend the Tulsa rally far outstripped the number of seats available.
The Republican president is trailing the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, former Vice President Joe Biden, in polls ahead of the November election.
Kevin and Joan Hansston drove from Illinois for their eighth Trump rally and said it was hypocritical to be concerned about coronavirus at the event after weeks of mass protests over the death of George Floyd.
“Trump has a rally and all of a sudden we’re concerned about it again,” said Kevin Hansston, 65, who was not wearing a mask.
Tulsa Police reported one arrest after the Trump Campaign asked them to remove a “Ms. Buck” from a private event area and she refused to leave. Police tweeted a photo of a white woman wearing a black t-shirt reading “I can’t breathe” sitting on the ground speaking to an officer.
There were scuffles outside the event center between Black Lives Matter protesters and Trump supporters.
“Racists go home,” shouted a woman with a Black Lives Matter shirt.
The country’s racial divide remains a political vulnerability for Trump. His “law and order” reaction to the protests triggered by Floyd’s death has put him at odds with the views of most Americans.
After intense criticism, Trump postponed the rally by a day so that it did not coincide with the anniversary of the June 19 commemoration of the end of Black slavery in the United States.
On Friday, he threatened unspecified action against any “protesters, anarchists, agitators, looters or lowlifes” who travels to Oklahoma, a warning that his campaign said was not aimed at peaceful demonstrators. Critics accused Trump of trying to provoke conflict.
White House and Trump campaign officials have largely dismissed concerns about the rally’s health safety, saying masks and hand sanitizer will be available. However, participants are required to waive their right sue if they contract the coronavirus at the event.
Strategists and former administrations officials say Trump must convince voters that his policies will pull the United States out of the recession sparked by the economic shutdown amid the outbreak.
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