Updated at 9:05 a.m. ET Sunday
In his first big campaign event since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic in the United States, President Trump reached back into his culture war playbook to paint an image of a left-wing extremist dystopia that will take hold if he is defeated and Democratic opponent Joe Biden is elected this November.
"If the Democrats gain power, then the rioters will be in charge and no one will be safe and no one will have control," Trump said to a crowd, which numbered in the thousands but failed to fill an arena in Tulsa, Okla., on Saturday night and was far smaller than Trump's campaign promised. "Joe Biden is not the leader of his party. Joe Biden is a helpless puppet of the radical left."
But then Trump seemed to undercut that message, saying of Biden, "He's not radical left" and that "he was never radical left. But now he's controlled by the radical left."
That highlights a problem that Trump and his campaign have recognized since before the Democratic primary. It would have been much easier to tie many of Biden's more progressive primary opponents to more extreme positions, because Biden has disavowed many of them. He has had to stand on debate stages and argue from the center-left when the energy, enthusiasm and loudest voices within the party were against him.
Amid Trump's handling of the coronavirus pandemic and the Black Lives Matter protests that have swept the country in the wake of the killing of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police, the incumbent president's political standing has suffered. His campaign hoped the Tulsa event would provide a morale boost. It billed that a million people had signed up for tickets, and it built a second stage outside for an overflow crowd. The president and vice president were scheduled to give two speeches — one outside, one in. But the overflow crowd never materialized, and the outdoor festivities were called off.
About 120,000 Americans have died from COVID-19 on Trump's watch, and he is seen by voters as fanning the flames of racial tensions in the wake of Floyd's death.
On Saturday night, the president defended his handling of the coronavirus pandemic, claiming to have saved "millions."
"We saved millions of lives. Now it's time, get back to work," Trump said to a tightly packed crowd, most of whom were not wearing masks. Trump made the claim despite downplaying the threat posed by the coronavirus for months and despite evidence that cases are spiking in many parts of the country, such as Florida, Texas and, yes, Oklahoma.
At one point, Trump said he told his administration to "slow the testing down" for the coronavirus.
"When you do testing to that extent, you are gonna find more people, you're gonna find more cases," Trump said. "So I said to my people, 'Slow the testing down, please.' They test, and they test. We have tests that people don't know what's going on."
A White House official said that Trump was joking and that the administration is "proud" of the level of testing it has done, according to a Wall Street Journal reporter. Yet Trump has repeatedly said he thinks high levels of testing make the U.S. look bad, because it shows more cases than if less testing were done.
Democrats have seized on the comment. The Biden campaign released a statement after the rally, saying that in "an outrageous moment that will be remembered long after tonight's debacle of a rally, President Trump just admitted that he's putting politics ahead of the safety and economic well-being of the American people."
Biden also tweeted, "Speed up the testing," about an hour after the rally ended.
Speed up the testing.— Joe Biden (@JoeBiden) June 21, 2020
By Sunday morning, a Democratic group had already cut an ad seizing on the moment.
Trump, who at one point meandered into a long defense — and reenactment — of his gingerly walking down a ramp and drinking water during a speech at the West Point military academy, again played on racist stereotypes and nicknames. He labeled the coronavirus the "Chinese virus" to approving laughs from the crowd, even adding in the phrase "kung flu."
He created a fictional story about life under the left, referencing when a "tough hombre" tried to break into a house, and a woman in it, whose husband was away for work, tried to call 911 but the number was no longer working.
Trump defended Confederate statues, saying the left is trying to "desecrate our monuments."
He pushed Congress to pass a law punishing people with a year in jail for burning the American flag, though the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the right to burn the flag under the First Amendment decades ago.
He took aim at the NFL, which apologized recently for how it treated black athletes who kneeled during the national anthem to protest police brutality. Trump implored, "Never kneel — we will stand proud and stand tall."
He hit several culture war notes, arguing that conservative culture was under attack from the likes of Biden and making a range of false claims about late-term abortion, taking away guns and wanting to "prosecute Americans for going to church but not burning a church."
Trump said Democrats want to abolish bail and ICE, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency. They want to dismantle police, he said, while freeing vicious MS-13 gang members, and he said that they want "rioters" and "looters" to "have more rights than law-abiding citizens."
"The silent majority is stronger than ever before," Trump said, declaring the Republican Party "the party of Lincoln" and "law and order."
But whether that message will work again in 2020 is very much an open question. Polls have shown shifts on how Americans view protesters and the police — and Trump has done little since becoming president to reach out to independents, a group he won in 2016.
His campaign was hoping that Saturday night's event, which went against the guidance of health officials, would signal the enthusiasm that the president still retains — and be a shot in the arm.
But the event did not live up to its high billing. Thousands gathered inside the arena, filling the lower portion of it, with many scattered in the upper section, but it wasn't full. Not long before the event, the campaign announced that the events outside were called off.
Secret Service has moved crowd back from the overflow stage so it can be broken down. pic.twitter.com/iIxXfnpOPn— Dave Weigel, Re-Animator (@daveweigel) June 20, 2020
The campaign blamed it on protesters.
"President Trump is rallying in Tulsa with thousands of energetic supporters, a stark contrast to the sleepy campaign being run by Joe Biden from his basement in Delaware," campaign spokesman Tim Murtaugh said in a statement. "Sadly, protestors interfered with supporters, even blocking access to the metal detectors, which prevented people from entering the rally. Radical protestors, coupled with a relentless onslaught from the media, attempted to frighten off the President's supporters. We are proud of the thousands who stuck it out."
There were certainly protesters, but those on scene reported largely peaceful protests.
Two opposing groups coming together in downtown Tulsa pic.twitter.com/IszKMkpXnc— loganlayden (@loganlayden) June 20, 2020
Our @CBSNews team stood at the W Fourth St security barricade for over an hour and watched as state police & national guardsmen blocked it. Trump supporters expressed disappointment when the entrance closed, but none of them appeared shaken or intimidated by peaceful protesters. https://t.co/k12dgdIP9a— Nicole Sganga (@NicoleSganga) June 20, 2020
It's not a good sign for a president who needed a shot in the arm as he faces slumping poll numbers. There are still four and a half months to go until Election Day, and a lot will change, but it's hard to imagine that this is what his campaign was hoping for.
Trump and his campaign know that he is at a low point, and it's clearly gnawing at Trump that it was spurred by the coronavirus pandemic, which derailed the economy.
He was "riding high," Trump said, but that was "before this thing [the coronavirus] came in."
LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
We are in the midst of a historic crisis here in the United States. A hundred and twenty-two thousand Americans have died of COVID-19. Twenty million are unemployed. And protests for racial justice continue across the country. Last night, President Trump made his pitch for reelection. He told his supporters he was riding high before the coronavirus set in.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: But we're still riding high because you know what? On November 3, we're going to win. We're going to win.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: The president spoke to a crowd that didn't fill the arena but was packed together, mostly without masks, in Tulsa, Okla., a city where infections have been on the rise. NPR lead political editor Domenico Montanaro was following the president's return to the campaign trail, and he joins us now.
DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: Hey, Lulu.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: All right. Let's talk first about the president's message. This was intended to show that the country is reopening, that things are going up and getting better. Was that the focus?
MONTANARO: Not really. I mean, this was about the president's reelection. You know, he delivered what was frankly a pretty disjointed speech that kind of meandered at times. But this really centered on that same old culture war and darkness in 2016. He claimed he'd saved millions of lives with his coronavirus response, despite downplaying the virus for months. He used racist tropes and stereotypes to describe the virus, calling it the Chinese flu. He painted this image of this liberal dystopia, frankly, that would take hold if Democrat Joe Biden wins the presidential election. Let's take a listen to how he framed it.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
TRUMP: If the Democrats gain power, then the rioters will be in charge. And no one will be safe, and no one will have control. Joe Biden is not the leader of his party. Joe Biden is a helpless puppet of the radical left.
MONTANARO: You know, it's - the tough part here for him is painting Biden as the most radical Democrat - you know, is a tough thing to do. You know, Biden has already disavowed many of the more extreme views. You know, like, defund the police, for example, is something that Biden has said he's not interested in doing.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: The president talks a lot about his crowd size, right? The campaign says they had a million ticket requests, but the arena had a lot of empty space. What happened?
MONTANARO: They were expecting an overflow crowd. They were expecting people to be outside. There - the president was supposed to give a second speech. They wound up dismantling that stage because there just wasn't an overflow crowd. And, you know, they blame protesters for not letting people in, which people on the ground did not see. They saw very peaceful protests, for the most part. And there were reports that teenagers on TikTok and K-pop fans were encouraging people to make reservations for the rally with no actual plans of going.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: What was the response from the Biden campaign and the Democrats last night?
MONTANARO: Biden campaign surrogates were characterizing the speech pretty much as a temper tantrum in the middle of a national crisis. And they really seized on this quote from Trump saying that he encouraged his administration to slow down COVID-19 testing. You know, his campaign and the White House say that he was just joking. But he has said similar things like that before, where he thinks that too much testing makes the U.S. look bad. Biden himself simply tweeted out, speed up the testing. The campaign called it an outrageous moment that'll be remembered long after the debate. And we're already seeing a Democratic group up with an ad this morning.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: NPR's Domenico Montanaro, thank you so much.
MONTANARO: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.