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Trump's rally, rally embarrassing night in Tulsa

President Donald Trump on the White House South

President Donald Trump on the White House South Lawn early Sunday after returning from the Tulsa, Okla., rally. Credit: AP / Patrick Semansky

That empty feeling

President Donald Trump saw a turnaround coming for his flagging reelection bid. He bragged about his campaign getting more than a million ticket requests for his first rally since March. It was in the deep-red state of Oklahoma. But once he got backstage, he was confronted with a state of blue — a vast expanse of empty blue seats in the upper level of the 19,000-seat BOK Center in Tulsa.

Trump yelled at those aides who were present, The New York Times reported. Not among them was campaign manager Brad Parscale, who had promised multitudes — 100,000. A stage had been built nearby so Trump and Vice President Mike Pence could speak to the overflow crowd, which turned out to be less than a low-flow trickle, but those speeches were canceled and work crews were quickly dispatched to dismantle the outdoor stage.

The fire marshals said 6,200 people were in the arena for Trump's return to the rally stage. A Trump campaign spokesman said 12,000 people passed through security metal detectors. If that was true, there were still 7,000 seats unclaimed, though Trump rallies are supposed to always be packed. So what went wrong?

Trump campaign adviser Mercedes Schlapp said on "Fox News Sunday" that protesters created a hostile environment and blocked supporters from attending the president's Saturday evening rally. Reporters on the ground said they saw no altercation, and one of three checkpoints was blocked for about 15 to 30 minutes, according to CNN. Protesters at Trump rallies are hardly unusual and haven't caused past crowds to melt away. Campaign spokesman Tim Murtaugh complained the media "attempted to frighten off the president’s supporters" with their warnings about the coronavirus.

As it turned out, six members of Trump's advance team tested positive for the virus, and Trump was furious that the campaign let that news out hours before the rally. Few in the crowd wore masks or practiced social distancing. The number of newly confirmed coronavirus cases in Oklahoma hit a record Sunday, but it likely will be days or weeks before it's known if the rally made things worse.

Trump held the stage for a disjointed speech lasting about an hour and 40 minutes (all here on video). He called Joe Biden "a helpless puppet of the radical left.” He denounced the unrest from protests over the George Floyd killing but did not address the underlying racial issues. His 2020 campaign relaunch borrowed liberally from his old playbook, with appeals to racism.

He called the coronavirus the "kung flu" and, in a variation of the Mexicans-as-criminals theme from his 2016 campaign debut, asked the crowd to imagine a “tough hombre” breaking the “window of a young woman” at 1 a.m. while her husband is away.

Slow-walking: His alibi

A week later, Trump was still smarting over speculation about his health that arose from his June 13 appearance at the U.S. Military Academy's commencement ceremony. "I have lived with the ramp and the water since I left West Point," he told the Tulsa audience during a nearly 14-minute reenactment of the events.

The slow, hesitant walk from the speaking platform? The president said he was wearing leather-bottom shoes, "which is good if you are walk on flat surfaces. It's not good for ramps." There was no handrail and the steel ramp "was like an ice-skating rink." He asked a general to stay close so he could grab on to him if needed and "so I took these little steps."

What about the glass of water that he began raising with one hand and then stopped to steady it with the other? Trump suggested his arm was tired from individually saluting cadets 600 times, and he didn't want to spill water on his tie because when that happens, "it doesn’t look good for a long time." Trump then performed a one-handed water sip, tossed the glass away and heard the crowd chant, "Four more years." (Here's the full video.) 

Early Sunday, upon Trump's return from Washington, his tie was undone.

Barr's whinge and purge

Attorney General William Barr has been conducting a slow-motion purge at the Justice Department, replacing or bypassing prosecutors who have been tough on allies of Trump such as Roger Stone and Michael Flynn.

Barr didn't say why he wanted to get rid of the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, Geoffrey Berman. But Berman's office prosecuted Trump's former attorney Michael Cohen, is investigating top Trump confidant Rudy Giuliani and indicted the former New York mayor's associates Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman. Berman also has pursued a case against a Turkish bank that Trump wanted to halt as a favor to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, according to John Bolton's new book.

The sacking did not go as smoothly as an "Apprentice" firing. Barr on Friday asked Berman to resign and offered another job, but Berman refused. Then Barr issued a statement that Berman had "stepped down." A statement from Berman said no, he hadn't stepped down, and that Barr had no authority to fire him because he was appointed to his post by a panel of Southern District judges in 2017 after Trump failed to send a nomination to the Senate.

On Saturday, Barr, complaining that Berman had "chosen public spectacle over public service," announced that Trump had fired Berman at the attorney general's request, only to be contradicted by Trump, who said, "That's his [Barr's department], not my department. I'm not involved." But Berman said he'd go.

So did Barr get what he wanted? It doesn't look like it. He was going to install one of his own close associates in the job. Berman held out until Barr retreated and agreed to follow the usual procedure when a U.S. attorney leaves, installing Berman's trusted and widely respected deputy, Audrey Strauss, to run the office. As for the permanent replacement that Barr wanted nominated — SEC chairman Jay Clayton, who has no prosecutorial experience — Senate Judiciary Chairman Lindsey Graham said he would honor tradition to let the home-state senators, Democrats Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, sign off on any replacement. For more including Democratic reaction, see Newsday's story by Rachelle Blidner with Michael O'Keeffe.

Janison: The weak that was

Even before the Tulsa debacle, Trump and his administration was looking weak in several key ways at the outset of a campaign summer, which could undercut his efforts to convince voters that Biden would perform less effectively, writes Newsday's Dan Janison. The irony is that Trump so often intones the word "strong" as a mantra.

Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected Trump's attempt to dismantle the program protecting undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children. Whether because of bad lawyering or poor execution or both, the administration didn't follow the necessary procedures. Another case backfired into a 6-3 assertion of gay rights from the high court. Earlier, the court denied Trump his chance to put a controversial immigration question on the census due to Cabinet-level incompetence. 

Public relations for this administration proves as weak as its legal practices. Few if any honest observers say deploying tear gas to clear the way for a strange Trump photo-op demonstrated strong leadership. Weak negotiations marked his multiple failures in foreign policy. The president had no had no evident impact on calming the uproar over the George Floyd killing, nor has he convinced the public that he delivered a strong response to the coronavirus pandemic or the economic rupture that followed.

Tests fail Trump

When it suits him, Trump has boasted about how much coronavirus testing is being done. But he also complains that it makes the infection numbers look worse, with a head-scratcher analysis, "If we didn’t do any testing, we would have very few cases."

In Tulsa, Trump suggested he had deliberately slowed down testing, which health experts consider vital not only for identifying those carrying the virus but to curb the spread. “When you do testing to that extent, you’re going to find more people, you’re going to find more cases,” Trump said from the rally stage. “So I said to my people, 'Slow the testing down, please.' They test and they test.”

The White House said he was just kidding, an explanation they've used before for the inexplicable or indefensible. "That was tongue-in-cheek, please … Come on, it was a light moment," trade adviser Peter Navarro said on CNN's "State of the Union" Sunday. Dr. Ashish Jha, director of the Harvard Global Health Institute, told CNN that Trump's statement was very consistent with the White House's policy in managing the virus that has killed about 120,000 in the U.S. "This is unfortunately not a joke," Jha said.

Biden tweeted Sunday, "I can't believe I have to say this, but we should be speeding up testing — not slowing it down." Senate Democrats told The Washington Post that the Trump administration has yet to distribute nearly one-third of the funds provided by Congress for coronavirus testing and contact tracing.

An ABC News/Ipsos poll released Sunday found 41% of Americans approve of how Trump has handled the pandemic and 58% disapprove.

Peter King may be convention no-show

Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford) said he has attended at least eight Republican national conventions. But King said he may not be there when Trump delivers his nomination acceptance speech Aug. 27 in Jacksonville, Florida.

“Thousands of people in a closed arena raises health issues, so I really haven’t decided,” King told Newsday's Laura Figueroa Hernandez, who writes of the contrasting Republican and Democratic convention plans. “I would hope there's some type of social distancing. I hope that everyone is required to wear a mask, I think they should do that." But King worried that distancing "almost goes against the whole instinct of a convention.”

The GOP moved the convention finale from Charlotte, North Carolina, to Jacksonville's 15,000-seat arena because Trump didn't want local officials' coronavirus concerns getting in the way of a packed house. Long Island's other Republican House member, Rep. Lee Zeldin, attended the Tulsa rally Saturday and plans to be in Jacksonville, too, a spokeswoman said.

Democrats postponed their convention in Milwaukee from July to August, hoping for more favorable conditions. But there are no decisions yet on how many will be allowed into the arena and whether Biden will deliver his acceptance speech there.

"Unlike Donald Trump, we are actually going to listen to the public health experts as we come to Milwaukee because we believe it's really important to have a safe, exciting, inspiring convention in Milwaukee and I'm confident we can do that,” said Democratic National Committee chairman Tom Perez. A DNC member from Great Neck, Robert Zimmerman, said Biden could give his acceptance speech in front of Mount Rushmore or the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington or another historic site.

Bolton: Stop Trump in November

Bolton, a hard-core conservative who served in every Republican administration since Ronald Reagan's, says Trump must be stopped in November, but he won't vote for Biden.

In an ABC News interview aired Sunday night, the former Trump national security adviser said the 2020 election is the last "guardrail" to protect the country from Trump.

"I hope [history] will remember him as a one-term president who didn't plunge the country irretrievably into a downward spiral we can't recall from. We can get over one term — I have absolute confidence, even if it's not the miracle of a conservative Republican being elected in November. Two terms, I'm more troubled about," he said.

"I'm not going to vote for him in November — certainly not going to vote for Joe Biden either," Bolton said, adding he would write in a conservative Republican.

Bolton told Britain's Daily Telegraph in another interview that the 45th president "does not know the difference between the national interest of the U.S., and the interests of Donald Trump" and that is "very dangerous for the country.”

Pressed by interviewer Martha Raddatz on his own past support for Trump, Bolton called it a "mistake," adding, "I overrated the chances to make this into a coherent, rational, systematic, decision-making process, to advance American interests."

More coronavirus news

See a roundup of the latest pandemic developments from Long Island and beyond by Newsday's reporting staff, written by Lisa L. Colangelo. For a full list of Newsday's coronavirus stories, click here.

What else is happening:

  • Trump-loathing teens, TikTok users and fans of Korean K-pop music say they helped disrupt planning for Trump's Tulsa rally with a massive campaign organized on social media to order tickets for an event they had no intention of attending, The Associated Press reported. While it’s unlikely they were responsible for the low turnout, they may have inflated the campaign’s crowd expectations, AP reported.
  • His lawsuit couldn't stop Bolton's book, but Trump's next legal battle over publishing might be against his niece. The president told Axios in an interview that Mary Trump is "not allowed" to write her forthcoming unflattering book about him because she signed a nondisclosure agreement when the family settled a battle over his father Fred Trump's estate.
  • Trump also told Axios he's had second thoughts about his decision to recognize Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó as the legitimate head of government, and he is open to meeting with dictator Nicolás Maduro. A gesture toward Cuba-allied Maduro might not sit well with conservative-minded Cuban and Venezuelan communities in Florida, a critical swing state.
  • Zeldin drew criticism from his potential Democratic opponents for not wearing a mask or adhering to social distancing guidelines at Trump's Tulsa rally. A campaign spokesman said that was because Zeldin (R-Shirley) and those around his seat had recently tested negative for COVID-19. Zeldin also got a ride on Air Force One. See Newsday's story by Vera Chinese.
  • The family of the late rock star Tom Petty filed a cease-and-desist notice to the Trump campaign after his 1989 hit "I Won't Back Down" was played at the Saturday night rally. "Tom Petty would never want a song of his used for a campaign of hate. He liked to bring people together," the family tweeted.
  • Trump allies are worried about Biden making inroads among evangelical voters, a critical category for Trump, Politico reported.

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