TULSA, Oklahoma—For his first rally in three months, President Donald Trump risked thousands of people’s health to explain—at some length—why he walked gingerly down a ramp at his recent commencement address at West Point.
Speaking to a less-than-packed arena crowd in Tulsa, Oklahoma, on Saturday night, Trump said that the viral video of his slow walk down the ramp—a walk that triggered speculation about his health in the media—was done so the “fake news” wouldn’t catch him “falling on my ass.”
It was an odd use of time for an address that was meant as a quasi launch of the 2020 general election campaign. But compared to the rest of the speech, it was at least fresh material.
In Tulsa, Trump did little more than play the usual hits. He made fun of former Vice President Joe Biden, his presumptive 2020 Democratic presidential rival, for doddering and forgetting things. He cracked a joke about asking his “people” to “slow” down coronavirus testing, so it would keep the official count of cases artificially lower. He lashed out at anti-Trump activists and his antifa and “anarchist” nemeses. He defended the placement of the “beautiful” monuments to Confederate figures that protesters have been tearing down. He repeatedly inspired his crowd of fans to the standard booing fits at the assembled press. He talked about how there should be a law that if you desecrate the American flag, you go to prison for a year.
And he kept on and on about that “ramp.”
“I've lived with the ramp and the water since I left West Point,” he told supporters. About ten minutes after starting on the tangent, he’d finally had enough. “Okay, that’s enough about that,” Trump said. “Does everybody understand that story?”
The crowd inside seemed entertained, cheering at one point when Trump proved to them that he could, in fact, drink from a water glass with just one hand. But, then again, they were among the truly devoted, descending on Tulsa amid a deadly pandemic to see the president’s return to the trail.
Over the course of the day, Trump flags, coronavirus conspiracies, and cartoons of the president pissing on the CNN logo outnumbered face masks outside the arena.
Some in the crowd began lining up days ago at the border gates surrounding the BOK Center in downtown Tulsa—all for a glimpse of Trump in his first rally since March. But the numbers of actual attendees appeared to fall far short of expectations. After hyping the likelihood of a packed arena with a massive overflow crowd that the president would address separately, the campaign had to abruptly cancel that separate speech. And footage from inside the BOK Center showed entire sections of baby blue empty seats as Trump’s surrogates tried to rev up attendees.
The evening was supposed to be about making sharp contrasts with Joe Biden. But the former VP wasn’t mentioned all that regularly early on. Midway through, however, Trump revisited some of his main, starkly contrasting jabs at Barack Obama’s former VP—particularly that a Biden administration would invariably be overrun with hard-leftists calling the shots for Biden. A large portion of his attacks were apparently meant to create a divide between Biden and the black community. Black voters, Trump said, shouldn’t go for Biden because he’d been pals with segregationist lawmakers, passed trade deals that hurt minority workers, and helped create the racial injustices that the country lives with till this day.
“I’ve done more for the Black community in four years then Joe Biden has done in 47 years,” the president claimed, regurgitating one of his many oft-recycled applause lines directed at largely white conservative audiences.
The event was the first visit to Tulsa by a sitting U.S. president in more than 25 years. But it also comes in the middle of a global pandemic and as coronavirus cases in Oklahoma are on the upswing, which perhaps contributed to the smalled-than-anticipated crowd. NBC News reported Saturday, hours before the rally, that six members of Trump campaign staff doing set-up work in Tulsa had tested positive for COVID-19—a fact which Trump was reportedly angry had been made public. Around the same time, The Tulsa World reported that Tulsa County had recorded its highest one-day case surge yet, and that the state had just surpassed 10,000 confirmed cases.
Outside the 19,000-seat arena, a festive mood prevailed among the hundred or more who gathered early to snag a seat. Trump flags were more popular than American flags. Vendors lined the streets hawking everything from giant flags depicting a muscular Trump outfitted as the movie character Rambo to a colorful variety of Trump merchandise. T-shirts and memorabilia for sale were emblazoned with everything from ‘God, Trump and Guns’ to a cartoon caricature of Trump pissing on the CNN logo.
One woman, who staged a sitting protest while wearing a T-shirt that said “I Can’t Breathe” was arrested on live television and removed from the area surrounding the arena when she refused to leave. The woman identified herself as Sheila Buck and said she had bought a ticket to the event.
News crews from all over the world, including Russian state television, interviewed Trump supporters, who were eager to share their views.
“The rallies are fun. It’s a big party,” said a woman from Chicago who gave her name only as Erin and who has traveled throughout the country to several Trump campaign events.
Like most of those gathered, she wasn’t concerned about COVID-19 and didn’t wear a mask. Nor was she concerned about protesters or agitators who might converge on Tulsa since members of the Oklahoma National Guard lined the streets carrying rifles.
Many Trump supporters dismissed reports that six Trump campaign staffers had tested positive for the virus.
“The coronavirus smells like Democratic shit,” said Tiffany Sullivan of Ninnekah, Oklahoma, claiming former President Barack Obama had somehow initiated China's creation of the virus.
Troy Mellema came up from Yantis, Texas, to attend his second Trump rally. He, too, said he wouldn't put it past the Chinese to have purposely manufactured the virus and released it into the world.
A young man with a cowboy hat yelled from a military-style truck adorned with InfoWars logos about how Democrats are destroying America and the COVID-19 virus isn’t real.
“Did you know the cure for coronavirus is riding in the streets? That’s science,” he proclaimed.
Several young Black men meandered through the crowd selling “Blacks for Trump” gear and signs, while former NFL Dallas Cowboys linebacker Bruce Carter mingled to promote his group “Trump for Urban Communities.” He has previously been described as a Trump operative recruited by Breitbart News to suppress the black vote in key states.
Some had camped out overnight or even the past week to assure a spot at the rally. They said the previous night was peaceful; only a few protesters came through the area shouting at the supporters and waking them at 3 a.m.
Cliff Sallas, a resident of nearby Sand Springs, spent the night there and was upset with Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum because no portable restrooms were provided for attendees. He said his family was allowed to use the facilities at the Hyatt Regency a few blocks away.
“I find it hard to understand why people don’t see what Trump has done for this country,” he said.
Nguyet Truong and her husband, Meng, came to Tulsa in 1975 as refugees from Vietnam. Both, who are now American citizens, said they are proud to support Trump because he is good for the economy and has won the respect of the world.
“We came from Vietnam so we know what communism is like,” Meng said. “We don’t want that.”
After the rally, several supporters said they were happy with the event and with Trump. “I loved it! And I am definitely voting for him,” said Joan Dean of Tulsa.
But self-described “old hippie” Mike Pellerin of Austin said he thought Trump was rusty. He saw him in Dallas and enjoyed it more then. “But he got to going and did well. That's why I like him. He's a winner,” he said.
Another supporter who didn't give her name said she likes Trump because she can relate to him.
“I tell you what, if I were up there in Washington, I'd be saying the same things he does.”