The President’s Shock at the Rows of Empty Seats in Tulsa

Inside the campaign, advisers believe disappointing attendance at the rally shows genuine fear of the coronavirus and the reality of President Trump’s sliding poll numbers.

Mr. Trump and Vice President Mike Pence had canceled plans at the last minute to speak at an outdoor overflow rally that was almost entirely empty, despite claims of nearly one million people registering for tickets to attend the event in Tulsa, Okla., and the president’s false boast of never having an empty seat at one of his events.

The president, who had been warned aboard Air Force One that the crowds at the arena were smaller than expected, was stunned, and he yelled at aides backstage while looking at the endless rows of empty blue seats in the upper bowl of the stadium, according to four people familiar with what took place. Brad Parscale, the campaign manager who had put the event together, was not present.

Mr. Pence spoke just after 6:30 p.m. in Tulsa and then left, the cue for Mr. Trump to come on. But there was a delay. Mr. Trump’s deputy chief of staff, Dan Scavino, peeked out from behind black curtains to scan the fan-free seats in the top rows.

Mr. Trump eventually entered the arena for a meandering performance in which he excoriated the “fake news” for reporting on health concerns before his event, used racist language to describe the coronavirus as the “Kung Flu” and spent more than 15 minutes explaining away an unflattering video clip of him gingerly descending a ramp after his commencement speech at West Point.

By the end of the rally, Mr. Trump’s mood had improved, advisers said. But after he left the stage, the fight seemed to have left him, at least temporarily. Leaving the arena, he wasn’t yelling. Instead, he was mostly muted.

When he landed back at the White House and walked off Marine One, his tie hung untied around his neck. He waved to reporters, with a defeated expression on his face, holding a crumpled red campaign hat in one hand.

Exactly what went wrong was still being dissected on Sunday. But a broad group of advisers and associates acknowledged to one another that Mr. Trump had not been able to will public opinion away from fears about the spread of the coronavirus in an indoor space. And they conceded that myriad polls showing Mr. Trump’s eroded standing were not fake, and that he might be on course to lose to former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., the presumptive Democratic nominee, in November.

Jared Kushner, the president’s senior adviser and son-in-law who serves as the de facto campaign manager, and who was involved in the decision to choose Tulsa as the host city, was not among the group of advisers with the president at the event. But he will be among those to whom the president turns to figure out what rallies look like going forward.

In a statement, Mr. Parscale, the campaign manager who many advisers singled out for the overhyped numbers, claimed the reports about TikTok users and Korean pop music fans foiling attendance at the rally were inaccurate, and even raised the possibility of not allowing the news media to attend events in the future.

Leftists and online trolls doing a victory lap, thinking they somehow impacted rally attendance, don’t know what they’re talking about or how our rallies work,” Mr. Parscale said. “Registering for a rally means you’ve RSVP’d with a cellphone number and we constantly weed out bogus numbers, as we did with tens of thousands at the Tulsa rally, in calculating our possible attendee pool.”

Instead, he blamed the news media for the low turnout.

“The fact is that a week’s worth of the fake news media warning people away from the rally because of Covid and protesters, coupled with recent images of American cities on fire, had a real impact on people bringing their families and children to the rally,” he said.

Campaign officials on Sunday privately admitted that many people who had signed up to attend the event were not supporters but online tricksters. One campaign adviser claimed that “troll data” was still useful, claiming it would help the campaign avoid the same pitfall in the future.

The adviser said that the data could be put into the system to “tighten up the formula used to determine projected attendance for rallies.”

In an interview, Mr. Parscale said the empty arena was not his fault, and that local law enforcement in Tulsa had overreacted, making it difficult for supporters to gain entry. He claimed to have thousands of emails from supporters who tried to get into the Bank of Oklahoma Center and were turned away, but he did not share those messages or names of supporters.

And he shrugged off the rumors about his demise, claiming he had been fired 85 weeks in a row.

But unlike most situations in which Mr. Trump’s advisers have tried to keep certain information from him — such as the fact that Mr. Biden outraised him in the month of May — or put a rosy sheen on it, the president saw for himself the empty seats in Oklahoma.

Several White House officials called the rally a disaster, and an unforced error that heightened tensions among some of the president’s government advisers and his campaign aides. What’s more, Mr. Trump’s White House advisers had repeatedly cautioned campaign aides against announcing an added appearance at an outdoor space, advice that was ignored as Mr. Parscale and campaign surrogates talked about it publicly.

The event does not portend additional large Trump rallies this summer, people familiar with the discussions said. The campaign had hoped to use the Tulsa event as a reset after the president’s slide in the polls in the wake of his administration’s failures responding to the coronavirus, and after his stoking of racial tensions amid nationwide protests over police brutality prompted by the killing of George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis.

For days before the rally, Mr. Trump was giddy about his first arena outing since March 2, telling one interviewer after another how big it would be based on the numbers that Mr. Parscale had cited publicly.

Mr. Parscale and others believed the event would demonstrate a real pent-up demand for Mr. Trump’s appearances — one the campaign has insisted exists. But some advisers privately questioned the data even before the event, and they feared the Tulsa rally was setting the team up for failure.

Now, some White House officials said the campaign was being dishonest about what had gone wrong, and they conceded that many of the president’s older supporters had decided attending the rally was too risky amid coronavirus fears that Mr. Trump has repeatedly played down.

Veteran campaign hands in both major political parties were highly skeptical of the Trump operation’s claims that one million people had signed up even before the rally.

Outside advisers to the president said his team was fielding calls from nervous donors and Republican lawmakers, who were asking whether the poorly attended rally indicated problems that were too big to fix with just over four months until Election Day.

It also was not clear if there would be a personnel switch because of the disastrous optics, but some officials recalled what happened in 2017, after an event in Arizona that did not go as Mr. Trump had hoped. George Gigicos, one of the original campaign hands and his rally organizer, was fired by the president.

Judge hands CNN victory in its bid to restore Jim Acosta’s White House press pass

Kelly, whom Trump appointed to the federal bench last year, handed down his ruling two days after the network and government lawyers argued over whether the president had the power to exclude a reporter from the White House.

In his decision, Kelly ruled that Acosta’s First Amendment rights overruled the White House’s right to have orderly news conferences. Kelly said he agreed with the government’s argument that there was no First Amendment right to come onto the White House grounds. But, he said, once the White House opened up the grounds to reporters, the First Amendment applied.

.. He also agreed with CNN’s argument that the White House did not provide due process. He said the White House’s decision-making was “so shrouded in mystery that the government could not tell me . . . who made the decision.” The White House’s later written arguments for banning Acosta were belated and weren’t sufficient to satisfy due process, Kelly said.

.. White House press secretary Sarah Sanders announced Acosta’s “indefinite” suspension last week after the confrontation at the news conference. Trump and Sanders have had several run-ins with Acosta stretching back to before Trump became president.

.. CNN has argued that the ban on Acosta violated his First Amendment rights because it amounts to “viewpoint discrimination” — that is, the president is punishing him for statements and coverage he didn’t like. The network has also said the action violates Acosta’s Fifth Amendment right to due process because his exclusion follows no written guidelines or rules and has no appeal or review procedures.

.. Until the White House’s action last week, no reporter credentialed to cover the president had ever had a press pass revoked.

.. A government lawyer, James Burnham, argued in a hearing before Kelly on Wednesday that the president was within his rights to ban any reporter from the White House at any time, just as he excludes reporters from interviews in the Oval Office. He said Acosta could report on the president “just as effectively” by watching the president on TV or by calling sources within the White House. He also said CNN wouldn’t be injured by Acosta’s exclusion since CNN has dozens of other journalists credentialed for the White House.

.. Burnham also explained that Trump’s rationale for Acosta’s ban was his “rudeness” at last week’s news conference, in effect arguing that Acosta’s conduct, not his right to free speech, was the relevant issue.

The assertions drew a rebuttal from CNN’s lawyer, Boutrous, who described the ban on the reporter as arbitrary, capricious and unprecedented. He said White House reporters need access to the premises to meet with sources and to report on untelevised “gaggles,” impromptu discussions with press aides and other officials, so that banning a reporter from the grounds harms his or her ability to do their job.

..  Trump has suggested other reporters could face a similar fate if they displease him in some unspecified way.

.. During the presidential campaign in 2015 and 2016, Trump banned more than a dozen news organizations from his rallies and public events, including The Washington Post. But he said he wouldn’t do something similar as president. Last week, he went back on that statement.

.. Trump’s 2020 reelection campaign has used the CNN lawsuit to drum up contributions, portraying the suit as evidence of “liberal bias” — an assertion Boutrous brought up on Wednesday to demonstrate that Trump had political reasons for banning Acosta.

Trump Taunts Christine Blasey Ford at Rally

Playing to the crowd of thousands gathered to cheer him on, the president pretended to be Dr. Blasey testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee last Thursday. “Thirty-six years ago this happened. I had one beer, right? I had one beer,” said Mr. Trump, channeling his version of Dr. Blasey. His voice dripping with derision, he then imitated her being questioned at the hearing, followed by her responses about what she could not recall about the alleged attack.

“How did you get home? I don’t remember. How’d you get there? I don’t remember. Where is the place? I don’t remember. How many years ago was it? I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know. What neighborhood was it in? I don’t know. Where’s the house? I don’t know. Upstairs, downstairs, where was it? I don’t know,” Mr. Trump said, as the crowd applauded. “But I had one beer. That’s the only thing I remember.”

.. Then, continuing in his own voice, he said: “And a man’s life is in tatters. A man’s life is shattered. His wife is shattered.” Referring to those who have championed Dr. Blasey’s case, he added: “They destroy people. They want to destroy people. These are really evil people.”

Senator Jeff Flake, Republican of Arizona, criticized the president’s mocking of Dr. Blasey.

“To discuss something this sensitive at a political rally is just not right, it’s just not right and I wish he had not have done it,” Mr. Flake said early Wednesday on NBC. “It’s kind of appalling.”

.. Mr. Trump’s taunts could inflame a struggle over power and sex that has consumed the capital in recent weeks and risked alienating two of the undecided moderate Republicans whose votes will decide the fate of his nomination, Senators Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska.

.. Earlier Tuesday, the president’s advisers were privately marveling at how measured — for him — he had been throughout the controversy around Judge Kavanaugh’s confirmation process. But his patience appeared to run out on Tuesday night, as Mr. Trump seemed eager to charge up his supporters against Dr. Blasey.
.. Mr. Trump’s portrait of Dr. Blasey was met with cheers and laughter by the crowd of several thousand supporters at the Landers Center in Southaven, Miss. And it mirrored the increasingly sharp attacks against her by conservative news media
.. Mr. Trump has expressed similar sentiments in the past in response to sexual misconduct allegations against Bill O’Reilly, the Fox News host who was forced out after multimillion-dollar settlements of sexual harassment claims; Roy S. Moore, the Republican candidate for Senate in Alabama who lost after being accused of child molestation; and Rob Porter, his White House staff secretary who resigned after two former wives accused him of abuse.
.. Asked if he had a message to men, the president said: “Well, I say that it’s a very scary time for young men in America when you can be guilty of something that you may not be guilty of. This is a very, very — this is a very difficult time.”