As he began speaking at his first political rally since the country largely shut down three months ago because of the novel coronavirus, Trump immediately blamed, without evidence, protesters and the media for scaring away his supporters.
“I’ve been watching the fake news for weeks now, and everything is negative. Don’t go, don’t come, don’t do anything. Today, it was like I’ve never seen anything like it. I’ve never seen anything like it,” Trump said. “We had some very bad people outside. We had some very bad people outside. They were doing bad things.”
He later referred to the protesters outside as “thugs.”
There was one major protest group at one of the three entrances after the vast majority of people had already entered the outer perimeter. The protesters blocked an entrance for about 15 minutes.
On Friday, Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale tweeted photos of the outdoor stage being built. “This will be the 1st time that POTUS speaks to BOTH crowds in person — inside & outside. If you come to the rally and don’t get into the BOK Center before it’s full, you can still see the President in person!” he said.
After the outdoor event was canceled, Parscale tweeted: “Radical protesters, fueled by a week of apocalyptic media coverage, interfered with @realDonaldTrump supporters at the rally. They even blocked access to the metal detectors, preventing people from entering. Thanks to the 1,000s who made it anyway!”
There were about 6,100 people in the arena, which can hold 19,000, according to the Tulsa Fire Marshals’ Office.
It’s possible Trump and his aides — even Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt (R) was touting the million-person number this week — dramatically exaggerated the demand for tickets. On social media some said there was a prank by teens to sign up for tickets to inflate the anticipated crowd size.
“Actually you just got ROCKED by teens on TikTok who flooded the Trump campaign w/ fake ticket reservations & tricked you into believing a million people wanted your white supremacist open mic enough to pack an arena during COVID,” tweeted Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.).
The stage outside the BOK Center was set for a presidential speech, with a lectern placed in front of an American flag, and behind protective glass. Fans had been set up along the overflow space to cool a crowd that never came.
Shortly after 4 p.m., as Sen. Tom Cotton (Ark.) wrapped up a panel near the main stage, campaign staff informed reporters that there would be no more overflow programming. Not long after, the campaign officially announced that the special presidential speech was canceled.
“There’s not a million people like they said,” said Erin Taylor, 33, as she left the rally site with her parents.
On the flight to Tulsa, as news cameras showed the spattering of people gathered outside and the vacant seats inside, Trump was unhappy with the sparse crowds and called his aides to try to fix it, two officials with knowledge of Trump’s comments said.
At 6:15, as a handful of people stood near the stage or leaned on the fence, Secret Service agents asked them to move back so the stage could be broken down. Heavy machinery rolled in to dismantle it, occasionally drowning out the speech Pence was giving inside the arena projected on a large screen. As he spoke, the overflow crowd dwindled, with supporters realizing they could get inside and see the president in person.
Other attendees left the arena before the president even arrived.
Steve Bayer, 52, left the venue in full Trump regalia: a rally shirt, MAGA shorts, and sneakers with TRUMP written across them. It was his seventh Trump rally, he said, and he had come to “check out the scene,” leaving convinced that the president would win again.
As Trump took the stage inside, the crane that had rolled out to tear down the stage outside halted, allowing the few dozen people in the overflow area to listen clearly again.
“I stand before you to declare,” Trump bellowed. “The silent majority is stronger than ever before.”
Josh Dawsey, Robert Klemko and Kelsy Schlotthauer contributed to this report.