By Anne Gearan and Josh Dawsey,
President Trump’s first indoor rally in months was staged as a rebuke to Democrats he accuses of using coronavirus restrictions against him, but the campaign event in Nevada also prompted sharp denunciations from critics on Monday as a symbol of the president’s failure to effectively confront the deadly covid-19 crisis.
The Sunday night gathering came as the pandemic has caused at least 190,000 deaths in the United States, with the number expected to pass 200,000 sometime before Trump holds his next official campaign events on Friday. The Nov. 3 election had already become a referendum on the president’s often dismissive approach to the pandemic before revelations last week that he had told Washington Post journalist Bob Woodward he knew the severity of the virus but preferred to play it down in public.
“We are already making the turn. We’re making that round, beautiful, last turn” to a post-pandemic economic recovery, Trump said during the rally in Henderson, Nev., although the nation has recovered only about half of the jobs lost since spring and 13.6 million workers remain unemployed.
On Monday, Trump held another indoor campaign event at a luxury hotel in Phoenix that was billed as a roundtable with Latino supporters. The White House pool reporter traveling with Trump described the scene as looking much like a rally, with more than 100 people crowded closely together inside a ballroom. Television footage showed mask-free supporters waving campaign signs.
“I know this was supposed to be, you know the fake news, they said that this is supposed to be a roundtable, but it looks like a rally,” Trump said. “But it is a rally because we love each other.” He then added that “it is a roundtable.”
Democratic nominee Joe Biden, by contrast, has made adherence to coronavirus rules a defining feature of his mostly virtual campaign. Although Trump mocks Biden as fearful, the former vice president has stuck with a strategy featuring few public events. Those he does hold are usually small and outdoors, as with a speech about climate change Monday in Wilmington, Del.
Trump’s address to a large and mostly mask-free crowd standing shoulder to shoulder indoors defied a Nevada public health ban on mass indoor events. It had been hastily moved inside a warehouse offered by a political supporter after the state and its Democratic governor sought to prevent a previously planned outdoor event that would have violated Nevada’s pandemic precaution rules.
Trump’s speech appeared to be a gamble that his defiance would energize his most loyal supporters, even at the risk of alienating more moderate voters he needs to win. Many around the president are acutely aware that a potential surge in coronavirus cases and deaths close to the election could be disastrous, according to campaign and White House aides, but they are mostly bowing to Trump’s desire to pack the house.
According to campaign documents reviewed by The Washington Post, campaign officials presented Trump and other top aides with a proposal for drive-in rallies in the early months of the pandemic. Supporters could then stay in their cars and watch Trump from the stage.
The seven-page PowerPoint plan outlined an event at the Florida State Fairgrounds in Tampa that would include up to 10,000 attendees, 2,500 cars, 20 jumbotrons, two large screens and three times more audio than a typical rally. It also included an elaborate stage.
“In terms of complexity and production, we believe this would be the largest Presidential campaign rally buildout footprint in history,” the plan said. Trump did not approve the drive-in rallies proposal, however.
The documents were provided to The Post on the condition of anonymity by a person with knowledge of the plans who was not authorized to address the matter on the record.
The president and his team also considered six options for other venues, including three outdoors, before holding an indoor rally in Tulsa in June, according to the documents reviewed by The Post.
All of the proposed venues had a smaller seating capacity than the BOK Center, where Trump eventually held what would be his last indoor rally before the one Sunday in Nevada. The Tulsa arena has a capacity of about 19,000, but Trump pulled in a far smaller crowd.
The rally was generally seen as a political and public health disaster and presaged the ouster weeks later of campaign manager Brad Parscale.
During the Tulsa rally, Trump warmly noted the attendance of pizza magnate Herman Cain, a onetime political rival turned supporter. Cain was hospitalized with covid-19 less than two weeks after the rally, where most attendees were not wearing masks. Cain later died of the disease on July 30 at age 74. It is not known where he was infected.
Attendees seated behind Trump at the Henderson event were issued masks, some of which bore the “MAGA” acronym for Trump’s campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again.”
It was an apparent nod to criticism of the event as a potential virus “superspreader.” The Trump campaign had also maintained days of secrecy surrounding the location. Reporters planning to cover the event were not informed that it would be indoors until hours beforehand, and many who had reserved space inside opted not to enter.
In Nevada, where Trump held multiple events over the weekend, there have been more than 73,500 cases and at least 1,450 deaths related to the virus.
Two advisers close to Trump, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter on the record, said the return to indoor rallies may not be a permanent one. “I wouldn’t expect to see one of those every week,” one of the officials said. “It’s not an ideal situation.”
Trump has two rallies scheduled Friday, in Minnesota and Wisconsin. Both are at airports and apparently are open-air events. Trump frequently schedules rallies in private aviation hangars that are open to the tarmac, usually with Air Force One providing a backdrop.
Campaign officials said they were generally not interested in large indoor rallies but felt they had little choice in Nevada after several outdoor venues were canceled. The officials said they encourage people to wear masks and check temperatures in advance.
“People are eager to see their president and our first preference for venues are places like airplane hangars. But the fact remains that no one bats an eye at people gambling in casinos or tens of thousands of people protesting shoulder-to-shoulder,” Trump campaign spokesman Tim Murtaugh said in a statement Monday. “People should be able to gather peacefully under the 1st Amendment to hear from the President of the United States.”
Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak had criticized the president for flouting the state’s coronavirus restrictions, tweeting Sunday that the president’s rally at Xtreme Manufacturing was “shameful, dangerous and irresponsible.”
Trump dismissed the criticism, saying in an interview with the Las Vegas Review-Journal that the Democratic governor had blocked the campaign from using any of six proposed outdoor venues.
The president told the newspaper he thought he was exempt from the rule prohibiting gatherings of more than 50 people and said he was “not at all concerned” about catching the coronavirus at his indoor rally.
“I’m on a stage and it’s very far away,” he said.
Biden’s campaign called the event reckless.
“Every rally turned superspreader event Donald Trump decides to hold serves as another reminder to Americans that Trump still refuses to take this pandemic seriously and still doesn’t have a plan to stop it, even after nearly 200,000 deaths and untold economic damage,” spokesman Mike Gwin said in a statement.
Leading up to Sunday’s rally, medical professionals and local officials warned of the dangers of letting the indoor event proceed.
Kathleen Richards, a spokeswoman for the city of Henderson, told reporters that the city had issued verbal and written warnings to Xtreme Manufacturing about social distancing restrictions and threatened the company with a citation and the loss of its business license.
Don Ahern, who owns the venue, told the Las Vegas Review-Journal that the state fined him nearly $11,000 last month for not following Nevada’s coronavirus policies after he held a Trump campaign event and beauty pageant attended by hundreds of people at the Ahern Hotel.
Meanwhile, the World Health Organization on Sunday reported the highest one-day increase in coronavirus infections since the pandemic began, with more than 308,000 new cases. India, the United States and Brazil logged the largest numbers of new infections on Sunday.
Globally, there have been more than 28 million recorded cases of the coronavirus, according to WHO figures. About 6.5 million are in the United States.
Lateshia Beachum, Timothy Bella and Adam Taylor contributed to this report.