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GUEST COLUMN: Leadership Lessons From The Pandemic On In-Person Rallies

The following is an excerpt of a guest column by Helio Fred Garcia published by on June 20, 2024.

In mid-June 2020 the Trump re-election campaign announced that President Donald Trump would resume in-person campaign rallies, which had been suspended since March 2, 2020. This was three weeks after the murder of George Floyd, which galvanized the Black Lives Matter movement and led to more than 25 million Americans marching in protest of police violence against black citizens. The New York Times called it perhaps the largest protest movement in American history.

According to the Washington Post, most of these protests were (italics in original), “remarkably non-violent. Where there was violence, very often police or counter-protestors were reportedly directing it at the protesters.”

One of those protests was outside the White House on June 1, 2020. Hundreds of peaceful protestors occupied Lafayette Park and surrounding streets. A curfew was set for 7:00 pm. Fifteen minutes before curfew, without warning, police and National Guard soldiers used flash-bang grenades, tear gas, and aggressive force to disperse the crowd.

Even as the police were violently removing the peaceful protesters outside the White House, Trump was addressing the nation via television from the Rose Garden, where he exaggerated the violence around the country and denounced the Black Lives Matter protests. He threatened to impose the Insurrection Act, promising to deploy,

“… thousands and thousands of heavily armed soldiers, military personnel and law enforcement officers to stop the rioting, looting vandalism and the wanton destruction of property.” 

He called on local leaders to quash the protests:

“Mayors and governors must establish an overwhelming law enforcement presence until the violence has been quelled. If a city or state refuses to take the actions that are necessary to defend the life and property of their residents, then I will deploy the U.S. military and quickly solve the problem for them.”[1]

By that day, June 1, more than 111,000 Americans had died of COVID-19.

Ten days later the Trump re-election campaign announced that the first rally would be in Tulsa, Oklahoma. It was scheduled for Friday, June 19. The choice of city and date quickly became controversial.

Tulsa was the site of the notorious 1921 massacre of black residents. At that time, the Greenwood district of Tulsa had been a thriving middle-class enclave also known as “Black Wall Street.” It was one of the wealthiest black neighborhoods in the country. A white supremacist-led riot destroyed more than 35 square blocks of the neighborhood. It left 39 dead, 800 hospitalized, and 10,000 black citizens homeless.

The timing was also a problem. Friday, June 19, was Juneteenth. Juneteenth commemorates the formal end of the Civil War and U.S. slavery in 1865. It has long been regarded as “America’s second Independence Day.” It is the longest-running African American holiday, first celebrated in 1866. (Note: In 2021 President Joe Biden signed legislation making Juneteenth a national holiday.)

Amid sharp criticism of both the venue and the date, the Trump campaign decided to move the rally to the following day, Saturday, June 20. But it kept the venue in Tulsa.

The rally would be indoors. There would be no mandatory masking or social distancing requirements, in violation of both CDC guidelines and local health department regulations.

The campaign announced that 800,000 people had signed up to attend, making this the largest campaign rally to date. The Bok Center, where the rally would take place, had a capacity of just 19,000. Trump’s campaign manager tweeted: “Trump #MAGA Rally in Tulsa is hottest ticket ever!... Gonna be great!”


But Tulsa officials were alarmed. Tulsa’s Health Department director worried that the event would become a super-spreader. He told the Tulsa World that Tulsa was seeing an upsurge in COVID-19 cases. He said,

“I think it’s an honor for Tulsa to have a sitting president want to come and visit our community, but not during a pandemic. I’m concerned about our ability to protect anyone who attends a large, indoor event, and I’m also concerned about our ability to ensure the president stays safe as well.” 

He noted that COVID-19 was spreading rapidly in Tulsa. People were out in public and not taking precautions. Recent gatherings have led to many cases of community spread. He pointed to a number of risks, including a large number of people coming to Tulsa, a large indoor event, and “COVID fatigue” that had led people to stop taking precautions. He wished the rally could be postponed until the disease was better under control.

But despite the health official’s concerns, Trump kept promoting the rally. He said,

“As you probably have heard, and we’re getting exact numbers out, we’re either close to or over 1 million people wanting to go. Nobody has ever heard of numbers like this.” 

But days before the rally things began to fall apart. Eight members of the advance staff, including two Secret Service agents, came down with COVID-19. CDC guidelines were for those who tested positive to self-isolate for ten days. After NBC News reported that members of the advance team tested positive, the campaign directed the advance team to stop testing.

In significant violation of public health procedures, the campaign also directed the six positive campaign staffers to rent cars and drive together, three to a car, the 1,200 miles back to Washington. One staffer referred to their car as a “COVID-Mobile.”

Word of the health risks spread, and by the time Trump landed on Air Force One his campaign manager let him know that attendance would be disappointing. Trump was livid. In the end, Trump spoke to a rally with many empty seats.

Even though the venue was not full, the rally still became a super-spreader event. One of those who contracted COVID-19 was former Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain, 74, who had not worn a mask and who had sat among many other unmasked Trump supporters. He tested positive a few days after the rally, was hospitalized a few days later, and died from complications of the disease. One distraught Trump staffer told ABC News, “We killed Herman Cain.”

Tulsa also suffered in the aftermath. Within three weeks of the rally, new cases of COVID-19 were at record numbers. Hospitals reported they were near capacity.

In his book BETRAYAL: The Final Act of the Trump Show, ABC’s chief White House correspondent Jonathan Karl wrote of Tulsa,

“The rally was a metaphor for how Trump had mishandled the pandemic. He dismissed the warnings of public health professionals, downplayed the danger, believed he could talk his way out of it all, and showed a total disregard for the consequences of his actions.” 

During the Tulsa rally, apparently embarrassed by the rapid spread of COVID-19, Trump called for a reduction in testing. Note that in the days before the rally, after eight members of Trump’s advance team contracted COVID-19, the campaign had directed the remaining advance team members to not be tested. In his rally speech Trump said,

“When you do testing to that extent, you’re gonna find more people you’re gonna find more cases. So I said to my people, ‘Slow down the testing, please.” 

But slowing down the testing would not have slowed the spread, just the public’s awareness of the spread.

By the end of June 2020, more than 130,000 Americans had died of COVID-19.


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