It was just hours before President Trump was set to take the stage for his rally in Tulsa last month when the news broke: Six staff at the site had just tested positive for the coronavirus.
Health-care workers were quizzed about whether they had leaked the information about the positive cases to the news media — and then were given a different list of people to test, according to two people with direct knowledge of the events who, like others in this story, spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe internal conversations.
The flurry inside the tent was part of a cascade of events triggered by Trump’s insistence on holding the June 20 rally inside the Tulsa arena, despite the adamant warnings of health officials about the rising risks of the novel coronavirus in Oklahoma.
Tim Murtaugh, a campaign spokesman, said the Trump campaign “performed more tests than originally anticipated” in Tulsa, adding that the event was in compliance with Oklahoma state guidelines and that campaign employees “wore masks during the rally in accordance with [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] guidelines.”
He did not respond to follow-up questions about who received the additional tests at the site, which provided screening for not just staff, but local leaders and top Trump supporters, as well. He declined to specify whether more campaign staffers than anticipated were tested.
The White House referred requests for comment to the campaign.
On Sunday, a second round of testing was provided in Virginia for campaign staff, according to people familiar with the event. Murtaugh, who initially declined to discuss the additional tests, later acknowledged that the campaign had arranged for the procedure for those who had returned from Tulsa and anyone else who wanted one and contracted a testing firm in Virginia to handle the volume quickly.
“We care about our people and their safety,” said Murtaugh, who did not respond to questions about whether any of the tests were positive.
In the past two weeks, the campaign has contended with waves of fallout from the rally, where the president put on a pugilistic performance before an arena that was only partly filled.
Two more advance staffers tested positive after returning to Washington. And dozens of Secret Service agents on the trip were ordered to self-quarantine at home because two of the staff who tested positive in Tulsa were Secret Service employees.
Videos and photos then emerged showing that before the rally, workers removed thousands of “Do Not Sit Here, Please!” stickers from seats in the arena that were intended to mark recommended distances between rallygoers.
In Tulsa, where many rally attendees did not wear masks, coronavirus cases climbed in the days immediately following the event, according to local health officials, who have said it is still unknown whether the gathering contributed to the problem.
Some top campaign officials, including campaign manager Brad Parscale, self-quarantined at home while other employees went to hotels, according to campaign advisers.
Campaign aides had hoped the rally would be a needed return to normal — urged on by the president who wanted to go back on the trail, both for his own political fortunes and to signal that the country was on the rebound. They noted that other large events, including protests across the country after the George Floyd killing in Minneapolis, took place before the rally.
But some advisers now see the rally as ill-advised, an event that created a cascade of problems that have challenged the campaign and its staff. Campaign officials had previously said they were planning more large rallies, but the Tulsa event has led to increased concerns and debates on how — and whether — they can be pulled off.
Michael Glassner, the longtime architect of Trump’s rallies, had been reassigned in the campaign to handle lawsuits, campaign officials said Wednesday, confirming a report in Axios.
Several Tulsa residents and business leaders had warned that the rally in their city would inevitably lead to the spread of the virus in their community and possible deaths. A group of them went to court trying to block the Trump campaign from hosting the rally. They expressed concern about the number of spectators — and people in Trump’s entourage — who would probably not wear masks.
The Los Angeles company that managed the BOK Center acknowledged that the gathering created substantial risks.
“We certainly agree that the CDC and other relevant medical experts believe that this type of event is ill advised,” Joseph Farris, an attorney for the company that manages the BOK Center, said during a court hearing before the rally. “No question about it. And we don’t argue that the CDC . . . classifies events like this as presenting the highest possible risk.”
Workers removed thousands of social distancing stickers before Trump’s Tulsa rally, according to video and a person familiar with the set up
The campaign had agreed to test its staff before the event, and a tent was set up at the site, staffed by health-care workers with equipment.
Among those who passed through were Trump campaign workers and top allies and surrogates, according to people with knowledge of the operation. Staffers and top supporters entered the arena wearing masks after they’d been tested, though many rallygoers did not.
Health-care workers inside the steamy tent initially were given a list of more than 200 people to test, two people with knowledge of the event said.
But then some people began testing positive. At one point, a campaign staffer was tested three times after a first test showed up positive — and all three tests came back positive, according to a person with knowledge of the incident.
After the news that six people had tested positive, health-care workers were questioned about whether they had shared the information and given a different list of employees to test, according to the two people with direct knowledge. It is unclear how the list was changed.
The situation made the health-care workers uncomfortable, the people said, and some said they thought that people who needed to be tested were not.
Murtaugh said that testing was not halted or limited, but declined to provide details.
In the aftermath, some Secret Service agents returning from the Tulsa trip were directed not to get tested until Wednesday, days after the rally, an instruction that was given without explanation and which some agents found perplexing, according to two people familiar with the instructions.
The Secret Service declined to comment.
Back at the campaign’s headquarters in Arlington, many staff were not wearing masks and some feared that could increase the possible spread after the return of those who were in Tulsa, according to people familiar with their concerns.
Asked whether staff wear masks in the office, Murtaugh said the campaign follows CDC guidelines.
Meanwhile, Tulsa County saw record-setting spikes of coronavirus cases in the days after the Trump rally — with the discovery of roughly 200 to 250 new cases each day.
In all, the county charted 902 new cases of the virus in the week after the rally, an increase of 15 percent over the week that led up the president’s visit. This week, new cases have fallen slightly, with an average of 93 positive cases per day so far.
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly said the Trump campaign headquarters is in Alexandria. It is in Arlington.
Julie Tate, Alice Crites, Robert Costa and Craig Timberg contributed to this report.
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