The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Hundreds of Trump supporters stuck in the cold for hours when buses can’t reach Omaha rally

President Trump held an outdoor rally in Omaha on Oct. 27. Temperatures that night dipped to near freezing levels. (Video: The Washington Post)

By the time President Trump finished speaking to thousands of supporters at Omaha’s Eppley Airfield on Tuesday night and jetted away on Air Force One, the temperature had plunged to nearly freezing.

But as long lines of MAGA-clad attendees queued up for buses to take them to distant parking lots, it quickly became clear something was wrong.

The buses, the huge crowd soon learned, couldn’t navigate the jammed airport roads. For hours, attendees — including many elderly Trump supporters — stood in the cold as police scrambled to help those most at risk get to warmth, and some were taken to hospitals.

After spending about an hour walking the three-plus miles back to his car, Jonathon Sundet posted a tweet calling the situation “disheartening” and asking for an explanation from the Trump campaign. The 19-year-old South Dakota State University freshman and his girlfriend had driven four hours to attend the rally, only to be stranded.

“There’s this belief that Donald Trump is for the common people, and that’s part of the reason why he won in 2016,” he told The Washington Post. “But the reason why I wanted to tweet it is because I do believe in part of his message; I believe in some of the things he said that night, and it was kind of disappointing that a campaign would treat you like that.”

By the end of the night, 30 people needed medical attention, Omaha police spokesman Michael Pecha said, though that was over the course of the event. Seven were taken to hospitals “with a variety of medical conditions.” It was not immediately clear how many of those were related to the lengthy wait.

In a statement Wednesday, Trump campaign spokeswoman Samantha Zager placed the blame on road closures, saying the campaign works to provide “the best guest experience” and “we care about their safety.” She added that tents, heaters, hot cocoa and hand warmers were available at the departure location.

“President Trump loves his supporters and was thrilled to visit Omaha last night,” Zager said. “Despite the cold, tens of thousands of people showed up for his rally. Because of the sheer size of the crowd, we deployed 40 shuttle buses instead of the normal 15, but local road closures and resulting congestion caused delays.”

The confusion and the freezing weather added to the health risks that accompany every Trump rally during the coronavirus pandemic. In Omaha, buses carried about 25,000 people to the airport, Pecha said, where they crowded onto risers set up outside. Though the campaign checked temperatures and provided masks, many attendees didn’t wear them, the Omaha World-Herald reported.

In the lead-up to the rally, police warned that parking lots were full. With buses taking a half-hour to ferry people more than three miles to the rally site, hundreds of attendees were late to get inside, reported Iowa Starting Line, a liberal news site.

After Trump’s speech, in which he promised that “we’re making that final turn” on the pandemic in a state where positivity rates exceed 20 percent, per the World-Herald, Trump flew away on Air Force One around 9 p.m. Attendees began lining up for buses to return to their cars.

By nearly 10:30 p.m., though, they were still waiting.

Brant Pavel, who made the trip to the rally from Chambers, Neb., compared the situation to game day at the University of Nebraska. His group was among those that decided to walk.

“It’s the same thing as a Husker football Saturday,” he said. “When the game is over, you know the buses and vehicles are going and they can only go so fast — so fast is pretty slow.”

The crowd of pedestrians slowed vehicle traffic along the roadway and further delayed the buses, Pecha said. Scores of officers tried to direct traffic, with some radioing in about numerous elderly attendees struggling in the cold, according to Omaha Scanner. Police began shuttling some to their cars to get them out of the elements. Extra buses were called in from Metro Area Transit.

“Many people underestimated the distance from the event back to the parking lot on foot,” Pecha said. “The last person was loaded into a bus from the rally site at about 11:50 p.m.”

The crowds didn’t fully clear the rally site until after 12:30 a.m. — more than 3½ hours after Trump departed. A spokeswoman at one hospital network, CHI Health, told The Post that five people were treated “with minor complaints” at the nearby by Creighton University Medical Center. She declined to release additional information.

Sundet said that other than his feet being “a little numb,” he was fine and “would probably do it again.” But he was concerned at the sight of ambulances and reports that some people were hospitalized.

“Like I said in my comment, it was pretty disheartening,” he said. He added that he didn’t blame Trump himself: “It’s probably not him scheduling the buses.”

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Some Democrats, though, sharply criticized the president.

“Supporters of the President were brought in, but buses weren’t able to get back to transport people out. It’s freezing and snowy in Omaha tonight,” tweeted Nebraska state Sen. Megan Hunt (D). “He truly does not care about you.”

During a Wednesday appearance in Delaware, former vice president Joe Biden also took aim at Trump over the lengthy wait in the cold, calling it “an image that captured President Trump’s whole approach” to the coronavirus pandemic.

“He gets his photo op, and he gets out,” he said. “He leaves everyone else to suffer the consequence of his failure to make a responsible plan. It seems like he just doesn’t care much about it. And the longer he’s in charge, the more reckless he gets.”

John Wagner contributed to this report.