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Trump Campaign Rethinks Strategy After Low Attendance At Tulsa Rally


President Trump's campaign is reassessing what his rallies will look like going forward. That's after Saturday, when crowds expected in Tulsa, Okla., just didn't show up. NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith has been looking into how the campaign might adapt. Hi, Tam.


MARTIN: All right. So we're going to get to what comes next in a moment. But first, just walk me through what you have heard from people in President Trump's orbit about what went wrong Saturday.

KEITH: A White House official described it to me as an unforced error and a self-inflicted wound, that the campaign underestimated how many people may be nervous to attend an indoor rally in the middle of a pandemic. They overhyped expected attendance. And so when 10,000 people showed up - or more or less - the focus was on the empty seats. And it didn't help that the campaign had to announce that members of its team getting ready for the rally had tested positive for coronavirus.

MARTIN: Right.

KEITH: A campaign official also points to the Black Lives Matter protesters outside of the event. I talked with Congressman Tom Cole of Oklahoma. He flew on Air Force One to and from the rally. And he said the disappointing numbers reflected a campaign adjusting to a new reality with coronavirus and those racial justice protests.

TOM COLE: They'll get better. I mean, it's like anything else. You haven't done it for three, four months. This is your first trip back. You begin to rethink, OK, what do we need to tweak? What do we need to do different?

KEITH: He said, on the flight home, President Trump seemed energized by just getting back out into the fray. And then he used this analogy to describe Trump's speech.

COLE: I sort of thought we were sort of seeing the show off-Broadway, so to speak. And it'll come back and be better on Broadway. But there's a lot of good elements there.

KEITH: Cole said that Trump needs to do a better job of describing what his second-term agenda would look like and also landing some punches on Joe Biden.

MARTIN: So we know that the president can be obsessed with crowd size, quite frankly. What has he been saying about the Oklahoma event?

KEITH: Well, so he has been very focused on the TV ratings and the Web streams of his rally, not unlike after the inauguration. And you have this shift now, where a campaign that has been all about demonstrating their enthusiasm through big, full arenas is now downplaying that very metric. I talked to Jack Oliver yesterday, who is the campaign fundraising co-chair, who said this.

JACK OLIVER: Regardless of crowd size, rally size, whatever - those are interesting stories for Twitter and 24-hour news people. If you think the president lost one vote from that, you're wrong.

KEITH: Another metric they've pointed to is fundraising. But Joe Biden has been catching up there, too, and had this huge virtual fundraiser last night with former President Obama.

MARTIN: Well, we know this is a president who draws energy himself from being in front of a big crowd. So whether or not it's a real metric for his support, I mean, he's the kind of person who needs that experience to keep going. So I mean, have they thought about - has his campaign thought about adjustments they might make?

KEITH: Yeah. And there are big challenges, right? President Trump had previously said he was looking forward to holding big rallies in Arizona, Florida and Texas next. And those states are all experiencing spikes in coronavirus.

MARTIN: Right.

KEITH: Yesterday, Trump did go to Phoenix for an event that wasn't technically a campaign rally. It was in a very full megachurch - a rally that wasn't a campaign rally - put on by a group called Turning Point, which is basically a Trump fan club for young people.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Who were the people that stood up? I just want to - stand up, please. Who said I love you? Let's - whoa.


KEITH: It was raucous, and almost no one was wearing masks. And Trump brought back a lot of the material that he sort of tried out in Tulsa on Saturday, which is an indication that he thought it worked, including a riff where he used an offensive term to describe the coronavirus.


TRUMP: It's got all different names - Wuhan. Wuhan was catching on. Coronavirus, right?



TRUMP: Kung flu, yes. Kung flu.


MARTIN: He's - they're - I mean, the crowd's kind of egging him on there. I mean, and it's an explicitly racist term. I mean...

KEITH: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...Are we going to be seeing more of this despite the risks, Tamara, these big rallies?

KEITH: The campaign's communications director said in a statement that President Trump is eager to keep hitting the campaign trail. But he didn't answer questions about what rallies might look like going forward. One idea that's been floating around is returning to those aircraft hangar rallies, where there's better air circulation. They're remote. And there aren't any seats to turn up empty.

MARTIN: NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith. Thank you.

KEITH: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tamara Keith
Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. In that time, she has chronicled the final years of the Obama administration, covered Hillary Clinton's failed bid for president from start to finish and thrown herself into documenting the Trump administration, from policy made by tweet to the president's COVID diagnosis and the insurrection. In the final year of the Trump administration and the first year of the Biden administration, she focused her reporting on the White House response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
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