- President Trump’s aides worried about the message that would be sent from the vast rows of empty seats at his rally Saturday night in Tulsa.
- Staffers texted friends and supporters who live near the 19,000-seat arena in a late bid to find people who could help fill it, while another aide said they wished Air Force One would just turn around midflight and go back to Washington.
- Insider interviewed eight Trump advisers in the aftermath of the Oklahoma rally, and none had positive things to say about the event, which has since set off a blame game and expectations that there will soon be a major campaign-staff shake-up.
- “They let anti-Trumpers buy tickets and they didn’t show up? That’s an old college campaign trick. That’s like a Roger Stone trick,” one Republican close to the White House said.
- Attention now shifts to the 2020 battleground of Arizona, where Trump will be speaking at a modestly sized evangelical megachurch, as well as another rally in the works for Alabama.
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President Donald Trump’s advisers panicked Saturday night in Tulsa, Oklahoma, as they stared out at row after row of empty blue seats, worried about the message it would send for the president’s reelection prospects.
The staffers began frantically texting friends and supporters who live nearby in a late bid to fill the indoor arena’s 19,000 seats. One adviser said they wished Air Force One would just turn around midflight and take the president back to the White House rather than subject him to the humiliation that would follow.
“Somebody needed to make the call to the president and tell him it’s not a big event,” the person said, acknowledging it was too late to send the plane carrying Trump back to Washington, DC.
Ultimately, Trump went through with his 2020 campaign’s big return rally in Oklahoma after months in a COVID-19 lockdown, empty seats and all. None of the eight Trump advisers interviewed by Insider had positive things to say about an event that has since sparked all manner of soul-searching and finger-pointing as the president’s campaign looks to find its footing against presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden with a little more than four months to go until Election Day.
Jobs are at stake in the fallout from Tulsa, with a big shake-up at the top of the Trump campaign sounding increasingly likely as the president tries to reestablish his presence beyond Washington amid plummeting poll numbers and a fuzzy outlook on whether the pandemic will continue to overtake the lives of everyday Americans.
The president’s backers said that such a heavy focus on the machinations by which campaign staffers might be ousted, or if the president’s rallies will become standing-room-only affairs, ignores a more basic problem for Trump.
“The president isn’t going to win or lose based on how many people show up at rallies but on his performance over the last four years,” Mike DuHaime, a longtime Republican strategist and managing director of Mercury Public Affairs, said.
Another test awaits in Arizona
The president’s visit Tuesday to a Students for Trump event in Phoenix is seen as the next significant test for his campaign. Aides said another failure could result in the big campaign shake-up that appears all but inevitable to them.
Rumors have swirled mostly around the fate of Brad Parscale, the reelection campaign manager who got his start working for Trump years ago by designing websites for the family business. Parscale’s stock has been falling for months, to the point that the president now casually refers to the person leading his 2020 team as the “$10 million man,” according to a Trump adviser. That’s a reference to Parscale’s prolific earnings from the campaign.
Whether Parscale should get the boot is subject to considerable debate. Other staffers this week said it was just as likely that Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and White House adviser, would continue “layering” new staff into the campaign around Parscale, like he did last month by installing Bill Stepien into a deputy slot, instead of firing Parscale outright.
Trump aides also said the blame shouldn’t fall just on Parscale. They point fingers instead at campaign staff who should have checked their internal data to determine if the 1 million people who supposedly signed up for tickets to the Tulsa event matched their own voter files. That way, they could have quickly determined whether the people who said they were coming to the Bank of Oklahoma Center were really Trump supporters, rather than the collection of Democrats, high schoolers, and Korean pop stars on TikTok who would later claim to have pulled an elaborate hoax on the president’s campaign.
“They let anti-Trumpers buy tickets and they didn’t show up? That’s an old college campaign trick. That’s like a Roger Stone trick,” one Republican close to the White House said.
Tulsa billed as the big comeback
Trump’s Tulsa rally was an expensive production billed as the big comeback for the president after spending three months off the campaign trail. His advisers even described it as the perfect kind of silver bullet that the president needed to get himself and his campaign back on their feet after months of bad polling and canceled events because of the pandemic.
“Not doing those rallies is like keeping a horse in the barn,” Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s personal attorney and the former New York mayor, told Insider earlier this spring.
But Trump aides are now awash with explanations for what went wrong.
One Trump adviser sympathized with the campaign’s trouble packing the arena in Oklahoma, suggesting the mix of the coronavirus, worries about violence from anti-Trump protesters, and the prospect of long walks in the withering Tulsa summer heat kept the president’s supporters home.
A senior White House official interviewed this week called the event a “win for personal responsibility” while emphasizing the challenges the campaign faced in planning for a big event with the coronavirus still a threat across the country.
Photos of Trump stepping off his Marine chopper after returning past midnight Sunday to Washington, looking uncharacteristically defeated with his tie undone, have also prompted debate among the president’s staffers about how the boss really views what happened in Tulsa.
“He looked disappointed,” one of the president’s advisers said. Another said it would be “ridiculous” to read too much into footage of a 75-year-old man returning home from a long day of traveling shortly after 1 a.m.
A spokesman for the Trump campaign did not return a request for comment about the fallout from the Tulsa rally.
But the president told reporters before leaving the White House for another event in Arizona on Tuesday that the empty seats inside the Oklahoma arena said far less about enthusiasm for his campaign when compared with cable-television ratings that night for Fox News, which aired the event live.
“The Tulsa rallies, despite all of the horrible, ominous warnings that you people put out over a period of two weeks, the crowd was wonderful,” Trump said. “It was a great — they were warriors. It was a great crowd.”
Trying more modest venues
All eyes have shifted to whether Trump can pack a more modestly sized evangelical megachurch in Arizona, which has become a surprise swing state for Trump and the Republicans.
Another looming gauge is the campaign’s standing in the deep-red state of Alabama, where another rally with the president remains in the works to support the former Auburn football coach Tommy Tuberville as he runs in a GOP Senate primary against former Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
Any shortcomings are guaranteed to get highlighted.
The Lincoln Project, a conservative-led anti-Trump group, already turned the president’s early Sunday morning walk from Marine One to the White House into a campaign ad that has been viewed 3.1 million times.
Trump advisers also continue to worry about the president’s standing against Biden. The former Democratic vice president outraised Trump $80 million to $74 million in May.
He has also consistently outpolled Trump, particularly in the critical swing states of Pennsylvania and Michigan. And Biden is also increasingly expanding the map of play to states previously seen as safe for a Republican presidential candidate, including Iowa, Missouri, and Georgia.