Will Trump’s Rally Prove as Dumb as It Sounds?

14 mins read

Now that we are months into a deadly pandemic, a severe economic downturn and three-plus weeks of nationwide demonstrations, what could possibly be more 2020 than a city in a Republican state begging President Trump not to hold a rally and endanger its community? 

There is a lawsuit as well. A judge on Wednesday declined to block the event scheduled for Saturday in Tulsa but lawyers who filed suit against the owners of the venue look forward to a ruling by the Oklahoma Supreme Court. Their case demands not the cancellation of the event but that organizers abide by social distancing measures recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. After all, campaign officials thus far have not required mitigation efforts like physical separation and mask wearing and plan to stuff nearly 20,000 people in the BOK Center and another 40,000 in an overflow location nearby. The CDC has designated such large indoor gatherings without social distancing “highest risk,” and notes that the risk grows when people travel in and out of the area for the event. For example, at least 236 cases have been tied to an outbreak at one church in Oregon.

Is this necessary? No. It’s nuts.  Trump does not need to campaign in Oklahoma, a state he will handily win, and he doesn’t need to hold a rally indoors. The worst part? Trump, and his campaign, understand the event is a significant public health risk. He is perfectly aware he is hosting what could be a super-spreader event that could lead to outbreaks not only in Oklahoma but the other states his fans will return to, which is why ticket-holders have to waive the right to sue, should the deadly virus walk out of the packed arena with them. 

Of course to get near Trump at fundraisers, according to NBC News, donors must submit to a temperature check, have tested negative for the virus, and respond to a wellness questionnaire. But Trump fans at the BOK Center will be free to inhale or spread aerosolized virus particles as long as they passed the temperature check at the entry. 

The BOK Center had postponed all of its scheduled events because of COVID-19 and had not planned to hold any of them until at least the end of July, while some were rescheduled for 2021.

Tulsa Health Department Director Bruce Dart said the large indoor gathering is not only a risk to attendees but the president as well. Citing “a significant increase in our case trends,” Dart warned that “COVID is here in Tulsa, it is transmitting very efficiently.” The area is experiencing its worst peak since April 4.

An editorial in the Tulsa World said it was the wrong time for a rally in Tulsa, that “we can’t welcome it” and that “it will be our health-care system that will have to deal with whatever effects follow. … Tulsa will be largely alone in dealing with what happens at a time when the city’s budget resources have already been stretched thin.”

Dr. Ashish Jha, director of Harvard’s Global Health Institute, told the Associated Press that the event was “extraordinarily dangerous.” 

Over in Trumpland, meanwhile, all is well. White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany was asked about rally safety and said Wednesday that masks will be provided and wearing them will be up to each individual. Trump has never worn a mask in public and has said he doesn’t want any empty seats at his events, even for social distancing reasons. “That wouldn’t look too good,” he said in April. Tim Murtaugh of the Trump campaign told Bloomberg: “They’re not requiring mask wearing in public in Oklahoma any longer because they’re far along in the reopening process, so I would tell anybody who’s thinking about coming to the rally … you’re going to be perfectly safe.”

That’s not true, as Oklahoma officials are publicly stating.  But its all-hands-on-deck gaslighting about the virus both in the campaign and at the White House. Vice President Mike Pence, who said the virus would be behind us by Memorial Day, is now visiting cramped diners in key swing states without a mask and trying to push governors to spread his fudgy message on new caseloads. On a call with governors Monday, Pence suggested they educate their constituents on “the magnitude” of testing and, he added, “encourage people with the news that we are safely reopening the country. That, as we speak today, because people are going back to hospitals and elective surgery and getting ordinary care, hospitalization rates may be going up. But according to our most current information, hospitalizations for coronavirus are going down across the country.”

Yet the data doesn’t tell that story. While some states are indeed experiencing decreases, others have surged since Memorial Day and in 14 states the new infections are outpacing the average increases in tests. For example, in New York testing is currently increasing but positive rates are in decline, while positive rates in Alabama are rising far faster than the increase in testing. 

Pence’s strategically timed op-ed in the Wall Street Journal Tuesday insisted there is no second wave. And that can be correct, as long as we never shut down the first wave. Record spikes were announced Tuesday in Florida, Texas and Arizona. Modeling shows we are on track for more than 200,000 dead by October. 

Trump finds the warnings about his rally tedious. “The Far Left Fake New Media, which had no Covid problem with the Rioters & Looters destroying Democratic run cities, is trying to Covid shame us on our big Rallies. Won’t work!” He tweeted this week. 

The president is correct that the media stopped talking about the pandemic in the heat of the protests and did not highlight the public health risk the demonstrations represent. We are likely to see scores of outbreaks as a result of thousands of people — many of them masked — so close together screaming and sharing water bottles, food, etc.

Protesting — outside — in a pandemic is risky, and attending a rally inside is riskier. Trump’s event, already postponed a day because the campaign scheduled it first on Juneteenth (June 19 marks the day in 1865 when slavery met its official end in Texas), should only be held outdoors. 

However, warnings from experts and the lawsuit haven’t convinced the campaign of the potential backlash to its irresponsible plans. In fact, the lawsuit was interpreted by campaign chair Brad Parscale as censorship.  On Wednesday he tweeted: “Leftist ⁦‪@JoeBiden⁩ allies are desperate to stop ⁦‪@realDonaldTrump⁩ from speaking to the American people. They’ll do anything to stop him, even suing to prevent people from hearing from their president. Despicable. It won’t work.” 

There are plans in place for more rallies in Arizona, North Carolina and Florida, all key swing states that are seeing alarming spikes in infections as well as surging hospitalizations. 

And it’s sure gonna be a party in Jacksonville, Fla., in August when the relocated Republican National Convention holds its indoor event, also without social distancing or mask-wearing requirements. It was those very requirements that prompted Trump to insist the RNC pull out of its contractual obligation to hold the event at its original location in Charlotte, N.C. Ask Erica Crisp or any of her 15 friends who all tested positive after one night out at Lynch’s Irish Pub in Jacksonville on June 6 whether a packed event indoor is a good idea. “I think we had a whole ‘out of sight, out of mind’ mentality,” Crisp said. “It was too soon to open everything back up.” 

Trump aides have talked openly since 2017, when the president couldn’t stop holding rallies even after he was elected, that he likes the adulation from the crowds. But we know rallies are also a key campaign tool — they not only succeed in helping to register voters but are great opportunities for data mining. Still, they don’t have to be held indoors and don’t have to be reckless. 

All of it — the disinformation and selfishness and political prioritization over public health — is a continuation of the Trump administration’s response to the pandemic since January.  From depleting pandemic resources, denying the virus’ threat and praising the Chinese for their transparency, hesitating to use the Defense Production Act to surge supply of masks and tests, a plan for opening up at Easter, a push for unproven drugs and home cures with disinfectant, to burying CDC guidelines that were too strict and disappearing the coronavirus task force, the administration has been wrong all along. On the pandemic it has never been credible. 

On Monday, White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow was again slinging more virus BS, saying not only would there not be a second wave, but that the virus is “controllable.” It was an interesting choice of words, since Kudlow was roundly mocked when, in February, he said that “we have it contained.” Ironic too, since, in mid-June there is still no actual plan to control the spread of the virus — only a policy of acceptable infection and death levels. 

After the Tulsa rally we can all hope no one comes away infected, bringing the disease to others there and elsewhere. But should an outbreak result from the BOK Center rally, the Trump team will have priced in an acceptable number of infections. How else could they continue with an indoor event this large? No matter how they spin it, the Trump campaign is willing to risk sickening thousands of people. 

A.B. Stoddard is associate editor of RealClearPolitics and a columnist. 

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