In a shocking admission during his Tulsa, Oklahoma, rally on Saturday night, US President Donald Trump said he had told officials in his administration to slow down coronavirus testing because of the rising number of cases in America, and used a racist term to describe the coronavirus.
"You know testing is a double-edged sword," Trump said while complaining about media coverage of his handling of the virus. He said that the US has now tested some 25 million people. "Here's the bad part... when you do testing to that extent, you're going to find more people; you're going to find more cases. So I said to my people, slow the testing down please."
At another point during the rally, he said Covid-19 has more names than any other disease: "I can name Kung Flu," he said using the racist term, "I can name 19 different versions of them."
Trump's revelation was shocking given that nearly 120,000 people have died in the United States from the coronavirus and medical experts have long said that testing is critical to identifying cases, tracing them and stopping the spread of the virus.
After Trump made the comment about testing, an administration official told CNN that the president was "obviously kidding" when he said that he asked for a slowdown.
The president, basking in cheers from the crowd -- which was smaller than expected, did not seem to realise the weight of the words that he had uttered, continuing on through a rambling speech where he spoke at length about a slick ramp that he had to walk down after his speech at West Point.
His grievance-laden speech, however, centered on what he views as America's need for a law-and-order president to push back the radical left, and his argument that former Vice President Joe Biden is not mentally fit for the job.
Trump touted the accomplishments of his administration while vilifying protesters, whom he referred to as "left-wing radicals”, who have taken to the streets to protest racism in the days since George Floyd's death at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer.
Suggesting that protesters had kept away the crowds away from his rally, Trump called the attendees at the Tulsa arena "warriors" and said there were "some very bad people outside”, although CNN reporters on the ground saw no evidence of that interference.
Ignoring the coronavirus raging in the state, he quickly turned to his campaign message touting his appointments of conservative judges, his efforts to rebuild the American military, the tax cuts that he championed and his vow to be the president of law and order.
"Republicans are the party of liberty, equality and justice for all," Trump said shortly after taking the stage. "We are the party of Abraham Lincoln and we are the party of law and order."
"Five months from now we're going to defeat Sleepy Joe Biden," he said, before mocking Biden by suggesting that he often doesn't know what state he's campaigning in. Trump criticised the media for failing to give him credit for the number of Americans who have now been tested for Covid-19 and played up the harm that the "radical left" has inflicted on police.
Trump argued that his administration's "incredible success in rebuilding America" stands in stark contrast to "the extremism, and destruction, and violence of the radical left." He argued that he sent in the National Guard after watching the protests in Minneapolis.
"You saw these thugs that came along -- these people call them protesters," he said, singling out the protesters in Seattle. "Americans have watched left wing radicals burn down buildings loot businesses, destroy private property, injure hundreds of dedicated police officers."
He charged that Democrats are trying to "demolish our heritage" -- referring to the tearing down of Confederate monuments -- and replace it with their "oppressive regime." And he railed against the calls by some protesters to defund the police, claiming at one point that Americans will call 911 and the number will be out of service.
"These people are stone-cold crazy," Trump said.
In the days leading up to Trump's Saturday rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, he and his allies ginned up expectations for a massive crowd with campaign officials telling CNN that more than a million people had registered to attend, and one local official stating they expected 100,000 to show up near the arena.
But those crowds didn't appear as large as expected Saturday afternoon, leading to an abrupt change of plans by the campaign. A campaign source told CNN that the team was abandoning plans for the President to speak to an "overflow" area outside the arena in Tulsa where only a couple dozen people were standing near the outdoor stage less than two hours before the rally.
The campaign had been leaning toward cancelling Trump's remarks to the overflow crowd for fear of angering the president if there aren't as many people there as he expected when he lands.
Shortly before the rally began, a CNN producer who signed up for rally tickets received a text from the Trump campaign telling people to come inside: "The Great American Comeback Celebration's almost here! Doors are OPEN at the BOK Center. Pres. Trump can't wait. There's still space!"
On Saturday, Trump's campaign communications director asserted that the smaller-than-expected crowds were partially a result of interference by protesters -- though none of the many CNN reporters and producers on the ground in Tulsa saw any incident with protesters trying to block supporters from attending.
The President had hoped that the Tulsa rally would mark a triumphant return to the campaign trail more than 100 days after the coronavirus shut down the country and halted all in-person campaigning. Recent national polls have shown Trump falling far behind Biden, in head-to-head matchups. By trying to resume the massive gatherings that fuelled his 2016 bid, Trump is hoping to reinvigorate his re-election bid in the midst of a pandemic, a recession and a national debate over racism.
Still, for Trump, the quick trip to Tulsa is a welcome respite from the controversy over yet another firing that looks like it's meant to protect him -- this time of a powerful prosecutor investigating his associates.
A Rally Amid Controversy
Though many medical experts, including top health officials within his administration, have warned against large gatherings at a time when coronavirus cases are rising in Oklahoma, Trump is holding this evening's event at the indoor Bank of Oklahoma Center arena, creating the potential for what medical professionals refer to as a "super spreader" event.
Few rallygoers were wearing masks as they entered the venue to take seats that were right next to one another. The crowd standing near the stage was already tightly packed as people without face coverings stood face-to-face talking to one another as loud music played in the background.
Trump initially was scheduled to hold the rally on Friday, which would have fallen on Juneteenth, the day commemorating the end of slavery in the United States. That decision angered many progressive leaders and protesters who have been in the streets demonstrating against racism in the weeks since George Floyd was killed by a Minneapolis police officer. The decision was particularly fraught because of Tulsa's history as the site of one of the worst racially-motivated massacres in US history in 1921 when a White mob attacked Black residents and business owners in the Tulsa neighbourhood known as Greenwood.
The President changed the rally date to Saturday in what he described as a gesture of respect to the observance of Juneteenth, but he has continued to antagonize protesters. On Friday, he warned in a tweet that protesters could be roughly handled.
"Any protesters, anarchists, agitators, looters or lowlifes who are going to Oklahoma please understand, you will not be treated like you have been in New York, Seattle, or Minneapolis. It will be a much different scene!" he tweeted.
This weekend, the Trump administration was engulfed in a new controversy after Attorney General William Barr announced that Geoffrey Berman, the US attorney for the Southern District of New York, was stepping down. Berman said in a statement Friday night that he had no intention of leaving his office. That led Barr to write a letter to Berman stating that he had asked the President to remove him, "and he has now done so," Barr wrote.
As he departed from the White House Saturday for Oklahoma, Trump said he is "not involved" in the attempted firing of Berman, and that the decision was up to Barr.
Earlier in the day, a federal judge denied the administration's attempts to block the upcoming publication of a book by former national security adviser John Bolton.
Trump spent much of Saturday upset because he believes the coverage of Berman and the campaign staffers who have tested for coronavirus are overshadowing what he'd hoped would be his triumphant return to the campaign trail, one person familiar with the matter told CNN. He was frustrated about the coverage of Berman's ouster and the six staffers because he hoped to see the cable news covering the crowd outside the rally arena, the person said.
Trump was also irritated at having to do the rally on a Saturday night instead of Friday because he believes fewer people will tune in, another person familiar said. The New York Times first reported Trump's frustration.
A Public Health Gamble
The Trump campaign's gamble in holding a big rally at a time when Covid-19 cases are rising in nearly half the states across the country was already apparent Saturday when CNN confirmed that six members of the campaign's advance team tested positive (out of hundreds of tests that were performed, the campaign said).
Tulsa County reported a new record of daily coronavirus cases on Saturday -- the fifth record-setting day this week. Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale was in the arena ahead of the rally wearing a mask, but Trump's son Eric Trump was not wearing a mask. Oklahoma Sen. James Lankford is in the crowd wearing a mask, but his colleague, Sen. Jim Inhofe, whose age puts him in a high risk category, is not.
The President, who has never worn a mask in front of the media, told The Wall Street Journal earlier this week that he was comfortable with his supporters wearing masks.
"They can wear them or not," he told the newspaper. "I want them to be happy."
Campaign aides are tested before events, per the Trump campaign's safety protocols. The campaign says it is taking extra steps to keep rallygoers safe.
"As previously announced, all rally attendees are given temperature checks before going through security, at which point they are given wristbands, facemasks and hand sanitizer," campaign communications director Tim Murtaugh told CNN in a statement Saturday.
But face masks -- which Trump's own public health experts recommend to slow the spread of the virus -- are not required inside in the rally.
While the Trump campaign created an overflow area for the Tulsa rally outdoors -- an environment that epidemiologists say is safer than in an indoor venue -- most of the crowd appeared to be centered in the arena.
"The set-up for the rally is currently a confluence of conditions that lead to thriving of the virus," Dr. Rochelle Walensky, Chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases at Massachusetts General Hospital, told CNN's Ana Cabrera on CNN's "Newsroom" Saturday afternoon. "People are inside; they're close to one another; they're (not) wearing masks; they're yelling. This is exactly the condition in which the virus can really spread quickly from one to another, that leads to super-spreader events."