Trump rejects Oklahoma rally health concerns, saying will triple crowd

By: AFP      Published: 03:18 PM, 16 Jun, 2020
Trump rejects Oklahoma rally health concerns, saying will triple crowd

President Donald Trump on Monday rejected pleas from Tulsa, Oklahoma, not to risk aggravating coronavirus risks by holding a rally there, announcing he wants to triple the crowd to 60,000 people.

"We have a 22,000 seat arena, but I think we're also going to take the convention hall next door and that's going to hold 40,000," he told reporters at the White House.

He was responding to criticism from the local Tulsa newspaper and a top public health official in the city about his election campaign rally, which is scheduled for Saturday and comes as Oklahoma is seeing a recent increase in COVID-19 cases.

"This is the wrong time," the Tulsa World newspaper said in a bluntly worded editorial.

"We don't know why he chose Tulsa, but we can't see any way that his visit will be good for the city."

The newspaper pointed out that COVID-19 continues to spread and there is no vaccine. 

"It will be our health care system that will have to deal with whatever effects follow," it said.

The arena that the Trump campaign has booked holds about 20,000 people, who would be packed closely together.

In a tweet Monday, Trump claimed that applications to attend the rally in the city, which has a population of less than half a million, were flooding in.

"Almost One Million people request tickets for the Saturday Night Rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma!" he said. 

He hadn't previously mentioned plans to pack a second, bigger venue. The former real estate tycoon frequently exaggerates numbers, regularly claiming that as many as tens of thousands of people are outside the arenas, unable to get in, when that is not true.

Trump said Oklahoma had done "really fantastic work" on fighting COVID-19. He said he'd predicted there would be "hot spots" and "we'll take care of the hot spots."

Trump has used the branded Make America Great Again rallies throughout his presidency to connect with his loyal base of right-wing Republican voters.

He often turns the events into extended performances where he tells jokes, crudely insults opponents and veers repeatedly off script with crowd-pleasing stories -- scenes unlike any other in top-level US politics.

However, the coronavirus pandemic forced Trump to shelve his rally schedule, putting a serious dent in his reelection strategy.

- 'Not during a pandemic' -

An initial plan to reopen the rallies in Tulsa this Friday, June 19, was criticized because this would coincide with the annual "Juneteenth" commemorations for the end of slavery in the United States.

With protests unfolding across the country against what campaigners call systemic racism against African Americans, Trump's campaign decided to put the rally off by a day.

Adding to the sense that the campaign was being insensitive in its choice of city and timing, Tulsa is the site of a notorious massacre of black Oklahomans by white mobs in 1921.

On Sunday, Tulsa's health department director Bruce Dart also called for a delay to the Saturday event, citing the coronavirus risk.

"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 told the Tulsa World.

Dart said it was "an honor for Tulsa to have a sitting president want to come and visit our community, but not during a pandemic."

"I wish we could postpone this to a time when the virus isn't as large a concern as it is today."

Trump himself has fought for weeks to play down the risks of coronavirus in a concerted push to get the country out of crisis mode ahead of the November election.

The president never wears a mask in public and mocks his Democratic challenger Joe Biden for his more cautious approach.

Trump supporters attending the Tulsa rally must agree to a disclaimer protecting the organizers from liability over people who might contract the virus.

Trump to halve US troops in Germany

President Donald Trump said Monday he will halve the number of US troops in Germany because Berlin is "delinquent" in contributions to NATO and treats the United States "badly" on trade.

Trump told reporters there are 52,000 US soldiers stationed in Germany and he will bring this to 25,000.

"It's a tremendous cost to the United States," he said. "So we're removing a number down to, we're putting the number down to 25,000 soldiers."

Trump's numbers were misleading because there are only between 34,000 and 35,000 US soldiers permanently stationed in Germany, according to the Pentagon. Rotation of units means the overall number can only temporarily top 50,000.

However, the US president's message to Germany, Europe and the US-led NATO alliance was loud and clear.

US troops have been stationed in the geopolitically vital country since the end of World War II, forming the bulk of NATO's conventional defense against the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

The resurgence of Russia's military ambitions under President Vladimir Putin has given the US presence new importance in the last two decades, with central and eastern European states leading the way in pressuring for stronger US defenses.

Trump said he wanted to punish what he said were Germany's insufficient payments to NATO and to use the troops' future as a weapon to back up his threats of a trade war with the European Union.

"Germany's delinquent, they've been delinquent for years and they owe NATO billions of dollars, and they have to pay it. So we're protecting Germany and they're delinquent. That doesn't make sense," he said.

- Weapon in trade war? -

Trump has repeatedly accused European NATO members of freeloading by falling short of their commitment to spend at least two percent of GDP on defense and overly relying on the alliance's historic leader -- the United States.

Senior German politicians expressed concern last week about reports the US was planning to cap troop numbers at around 25,000, which appeared to catch Berlin by surprise.

The plan raised fresh questions about Trump's commitment to longstanding cooperation agreements with European allies and the Western military alliance itself.

Trump said Germany, as the economic powerhouse of the European Union, was also to blame because "they treat us very badly on trade."

"We're negotiating with them on that, but right now I'm not satisfied with the deal they want to make. They've cost the United States hundreds of billions of dollars over the years on trade, so we get hurt on trade and we get hurt on NATO."

He complained that Germany was profiting from the US troop presence.

"Those are well-paid soldiers. They live in Germany, they spend vast amounts of money in Germany. Everywhere around those bases is very prosperous for Germany. So Germany takes."

Trump has had testy relations with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in the past. A new strain emerged over the last few weeks when she said no to an invitation for a G7 summit in Washington, citing the lingering coronavirus pandemic, which has sharply restricted international travel.

Trump, who is behind in the polls ahead of November presidential elections, had hoped the summit would showcase US leadership. Momentum for the hastily organized G7 petered out after Merkel's refusal and Trump reacted by announcing he'd hold a summit later this year, possibly September.

In a surprise move, the Republican president said he would invite Putin to join in, along with several other non-G7 world leaders, calling the group of seven wealthy, Western allies "outdated."