On Monday, the campaign announced that two additional staff members tested positive for the novel coronavirus after attending the Tulsa rally. Six members of the campaign advance team tested positive before the rally.
Less than five months before Trump faces voters, Tulsa serves as a touch point for a campaign that increasingly appears to be in crisis. Far behind in the polls and struggling to find a clear and effective message against Democratic rival Joe Biden, Trump has turned a skeptical eye on his own campaign — raising the prospect of the kind of reshuffling that took place in 2016 after bouts of infighting, chaos and negative headlines.
“The campaign completely screwed up on this rally,” said Dan Eberhart, a Republican donor. “I don’t know how it would be possible to misalign expectations more than they did here. If I’m Parscale, I’m thinking about how many people did Trump go through last cycle? All of that said, I think Joe Biden would have had six people there. If Trump can pull 6,000, Biden wouldn’t be able to pull 100.”
Publicly, the White House and Trump campaign declared the rally a success and denied claims that Trump — who has long fixated on crowd size — was upset about the crowd of 6,200 at the 19,000-seat arena in Tulsa. Before the event, Trump said he expected tens of thousands of supporters to be there.
“He’s quite pleased with how the rally went,” White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said Monday, before reading from a slip of paper handed to her at the briefing room podium about millions of people who watched the rally on television.
Tim Murtaugh, who released statements on Saturday and Monday confirming coronavirus cases among campaign staff in Tulsa, said Trump’s crowd dwarfed the typical Biden gathering.
“This is an enormous audience that Joe Biden couldn’t even begin to dream of from his basement, and we are eager to continue to highlight the enthusiasm gap, which is real and wide,” he said.
Murtaugh said Trump was “eager” to continue holding rallies, despite the virus fears and nationwide protests over racial injustice and police brutality.
Trump’s reelection team and other allies have already begun thinking of how to retool the traditional campaign rally to avoid a repeat of the Tulsa outing, after a promised crowd of tens of thousands never showed up and a second stage built for the president to address an overflow crowd had to be quickly dismantled.
Some campaign officials are pushing for future rallies to take place outdoors, possibly returning to the kind of airplane hangar events Trump held in 2016. Huge indoor arenas are unlikely to be used as often as Trump has in the past, though the president prefers them to hangars or smaller sites, according to a Republican operative in frequent touch with the White House who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.
Trump and his campaign have built much of their reelection strategy around massive rallies headlined by the president — pitching the events as perfect for boosting enthusiasm among supporters, recruiting volunteers and soaking up data about potential voters. But the pandemic has forced many of the president’s supporters, including the elderly and those with preexisting health conditions, to weigh their personal well-being against their desire to show support for Trump. The campaign made clear the trade-off before the Tulsa rally, requiring attendees to sign waivers agreeing not to sue if they contracted the virus.
The debate over rally sites is indicative of a broader rift between Trump and his campaign, officials said.
Trump has resisted efforts to move away from packed mega-rallies in large urban arenas. Despite public health guidelines urging people to avoid mass gatherings, Trump has pushed to continue holding large rallies and has viewed it as the job of his campaign to fill the arenas, said the Republican operative close to the White House.
Trump, who has been fixated on news coverage, has complained that moving his rallies to smaller venues would lead to negative attacks questioning his level of support and that airport hangars lack the energy of a raucous indoor rally, this person said.
Trump’s relationship with his campaign has soured in recent months as officials have presented him with polls showing him trailing Biden in several key states. Public polling also shows Biden with a significant lead nationally and in swing states, a gap that has grown in recent months as the public has given Trump low marks for his handling of the pandemic, the economic crisis and racial strife. There’s a growing consensus inside the campaign world that Trump will have difficulty winning some states he won in 2016, such as Michigan and Pennsylvania, in November, officials said.
Tension between Trump and his campaign has escalated during the pandemic. The campaign resents Trump saying “really stupid things that drive the narrative in the wrong direction, and he thinks they’re incompetent fools who can’t fill an arena,” said the GOP operative, who added that a “dramatic reorganization” is needed with a “a grown-up in charge.”
Parscale has taken the brunt of the criticism for the Tulsa rally, after he repeatedly touted more than 1 million sign-ups ahead of the event and later tried to tamp down stories indicating that young social media users had sabotaged the campaign’s ticketing system.
Trump, who has long displayed a sensitivity about being outsmarted or publicly one-upped, was frustrated with Parscale over the situation, according to three people familiar with the matter.
While Parscale is not expected to be fired over the Tulsa rally, his influence in Trump’s orbit is waning, according to several Republican allies close to the president. One adviser noted that Parscale was not on the plane with Trump to the rally and is spending much of his time in Florida.
Corey Lewandowski, who served as Trump’s campaign manager for much of the 2016 race, said Monday that the Tulsa rally represented a “fundamental mistake.”
“Over-promising and under-delivering is the biggest mistake you can make in politics,” Lewandowski, an outside adviser to the president, said Monday on “New Hampshire Today” with Jack Heath. “I lived this, as you know, I did this when candidate Trump was running. We won 38 primaries and caucuses under my stewardship — obviously all due to Donald Trump. But we never did something like this.”
Murtaugh on Monday defended Parscale’s stewardship of the campaign, highlighting the long-running relationship between the former contractor for Trump Organization websites and the Trump family.
Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and a Parscale ally, has been telling people, including the reporters who ask, that Parscale’s job is safe, according to someone familiar with the matter.
“Brad has built an amazing team and is doing a great job,” Murtaugh said in a statement. “He has a strong 10-year relationship with the President and the Trump family.”
The campaign has also disputed the Tulsa official crowd estimate and highlighted digital viewership of the rally. Trump has called for his aides to focus on the speech’s ratings, according to officials familiar with the matter.
Some advisers have grown worried that Trump’s intense focus on things like his crowd size, his physical stamina and his ability to manage a glass of water — all of which were part of the president’s rally speech — distract from a message tailored to defeating Biden in November.
Trump’s campaign and outside allies have struggled to accomplish their goal of defining Biden and burying him with negative ads during the months before the fall campaign kicks into high gear. The pandemic and other crises have interfered with those plans and Trump has been unable or unwilling to stick to a consistent message.
For example, Trump spent much of the weekend fuming over a new book by former national security adviser John Bolton, according to two people who spoke with him. Trump has also spent recent days defending Confederate monuments and calling for flag burners to be jailed.
Trump’s campaign has tried to keep its focus on Biden, though often using disjointed messaging that casts the former vice president as too old and feeble to fulfill the duties of president and a dangerous advocate for radical left-wing policies.
The campaign has two television ads running across the country this week, part of an aggressive campaign to mock Biden for staying “in his basement” during the pandemic.
Biden’s campaign shot back at Trump after the Tulsa rally, criticizing the president for saying he asked government officials to “slow the testing” for the virus because too many cases were being reported. White House officials said Trump was joking, but the president appeared to double down on the comment on Monday.
“I mean, my God,” Biden said of the comment during a fundraiser on Monday, referring to Trump’s rally speech as a “diatribe.”
Paris Dennard, a Republican National Committee communications adviser and a board member of the Trump campaign’s “Black Voices for Trump” group, said that despite the challenges, that campaign is moving “full steam ahead.”
“We have the resources, we have the people and the boots on the ground, we have the volunteers ready, we have people that are trained, and we’re ready to go,” he said. “And the rallies will continue.”