Donald Trump’s campaign manager, Brad Parscale, was under pressure on Sunday after claiming hundreds of thousands of people had applied for tickets to the president’s return to the campaign trail in Tulsa, only for the rally to attract a sparse crowd.
At the BOK Center in the Oklahoma city on Saturday night, as the president took the stage to give his first campaign speech since the Covid-19 pandemic put large parts of America under lockdown, vast banks of empty seats could be seen.
The Tulsa fire department said 6,200 people attended. The Trump campaign claimed 12,000. The arena holds 19,000.
The campaign had built an “overflow” stage outside the BOK Center, to host brief remarks by Trump and Mike Pence. Those speeches were cancelled.
Trump’s demeanour on returning to Washington was widely scrutinised. He was initially quiet on Twitter on Sunday but the president was reported to be “furious” at the “underwhelming” event, which followed a week of controversy about whether it should even be held. According to NBC, Trump was “particularly angry that before he even left DC, aides made public that six members of team in Tulsa tested positive for Covid-19”.
CNN reported that the president’s daughter and son-in-law, Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, were “pissed” that Parscale had promised huge crowds. Trump also claimed this week that more than a million people wanted to attend his rally.
In a statement, Parscale blamed the low attendance on “a week’s worth of the fake news media warning people away from the rally because of Covid and protesters”, which he said “coupled with recent images of American cities on fire, had a real impact on people bringing their families and children to the rally”.
He then appeared to threaten to rescind accreditation for journalists critical of the Trump campaign.
“For the media to now celebrate the fear that they helped create is disgusting, but typical,” he said. “And it makes us wonder why we bother credentialing media for events when they don’t do their full jobs as professionals.”
Parscale has been widely credited for his work on the 2016 campaign but pressure has increased as the re-election campaign heats up, with reports of a president furious about polling results and pondering a reorganisation.
Trump trails Joe Biden nationally and in most polls in battleground states.
Rick Wilson, a bestselling author, former Republican consultant and co-founder of the Lincoln Project, an anti-Trump super pac, was critical of Parscale’s approach.
“Brad broke the first rule of American politics: under promise and over deliver,” he told the Guardian. “Brad’s survival now depends on the good offices of his patrons inside the Trump camp, and [Ivanka and Kushner] are already signaling their displeasure to the media.
“The only X factor is whether anyone else in Trump’s crew of skells [and] grifters … has offered to keep the scam running.”
It has been reported that the number of applicants for tickets to Saturday’s rally was inflated by young users of the social media platform TikTok applying but then deliberately not attending.
“Trump has been actively trying to disenfranchise millions of Americans in so many ways, and to me, this was the protest I was able to perform,” Erin Hoffman, an 18-year-old New Yorker, told the New York Times.
The Trump campaign said protesters blocked entrances and metal detectors, preventing people from entering the rally. However, reporters on the ground including the Guardian’s Oliver Laughland said they saw no evidence of such tactics.
As Covid-19 cases in Oklahoma rise, public health officials had warned against holding a large indoor gathering. The Trump campaign did not require attendees to wear masks. Some observers speculated fear of Covid-19 may have stopped some supporters from attending the rally.