TULSA, Okla. – When President Donald Trump returns to the campaign trail for a rally here Saturday he’ll be taking a high-stakes gamble that could set the pace of the presidential race for at least the rest of the summer, GOP allies and observers say.
Trump's rally – his first since he addressed supporters in early March in North Carolina – has the potential to kickstart his struggling reelection effort, quiet critics questioning the wisdom of massive indoor events during the coronavirus pandemic and deliver to the White House a powerful talking point in the increasingly partisan battle over reopening.
It could also backfire: Undermining Trump’s rosy assertions about the course of the virus – and his administration’s response to it – at a time when his support is at a low point.
"They're definitely taking a risk with this," said Amy Koch, a Minnesota-based Republican strategist. "If there isn't a spike, if there isn’t some kind of a ground zero effect, it’s going to embolden him – and it's going to mean more rallies."
On the other hand, if public health experts' fears about the rally becoming a "super spreader" event are realized, it would almost certainly delay future rallies and undercut the president's message that the country is on course for a quick recovery.
The risks to the rally were underscored by an extraordinary series of events that began Thursday night when Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum set a three-night curfew, citing the expected crowds of more than 100,000, the planned protests, and the civil unrest that has already erupted in the city and around the nation.
The tighter security meant Trump supporters lined up for the rally had to be moved further away from the 19,000-seat BOK Center. Some supporters had been camping out for days to get a good spot and the curfew raised questions about whether they would be able to remain near the site overnight Friday.
By Friday afternoon, the curfew was lifted after Bynum and Trump spoke by phone – a decision that was announced first by Trump on Twitter and then confirmed by the mayor.
Coronavirus:Health experts fear Trump's rally could turn into a 'super spreader' event
Trump is expected to touch down in the Sooner State – one of the reddest states in the nation – around dinnertime and host his first rally since the coronavirus was declared a pandemic. As he strolls onto the stage in the BOK Center, with Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA” pouring through the speakers, he’ll face a dramatically different political scene than the one he was navigating three months ago.