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Week In Politics: President Trump's Tulsa Rally Sees Smaller Crowds Than Anticipated

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Five months before the election, President Donald Trump seems to be at war with a lot of folks and organizations, from John Bolton to Dr. Anthony Fauci to the NFL to the Southern District of New York. And last night, in Tulsa, Okla., at his first campaign rally since March 2, he addressed a partially empty arena.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I've been watching the fake news for weeks now, and everything is negative. Don't go. Don't come. Don't do anything. Today, it was like - I've never seen anything like it. I've never seen anything like it. You are warriors. Thank you.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Here to talk to us, as she does most weekends, is NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson.

Good morning.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Hi, Lulu.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So the president spoke to a far smaller crowd than had been anticipated, and TikTok users might have had a hand in that. It's one of the stranger storylines of this election season. So what did you make of that and his two-hour speech?

LIASSON: Yes. TikTok users, mostly teenagers, might have acquired thousands of free tickets to the rally with no intention of showing up, which inflated expectations. But the speech itself was remarkable for what wasn't in it - nothing about racial reconciliation, lots of personal grievances. Trump spent many minutes talking about his walk down the ramp at West Point in order to show that he was in good health.

And despite suggestions, including in a piece that I reported on Friday - so mea culpa - that Trump may be understanding that it's time to back off a little in the divisive culture war material - he didn't do that last night. He talked about Confederate symbols being, quote, "our heritage." He called COVID-19 kung flu. He said if Joe Biden is elected, rioters will take over the country. It was a very defiant speech.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah, I think the idea that President Trump is going to pivot is, I think, not going to happen.

LIASSON: Yeah, no - not happening.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: This was supposed to be a celebration - not happening. This is supposed to be a celebration of the country opening up again. But six of the president's campaign staffers working on the rally in Tulsa tested positive for the coronavirus, and Oklahoma is an infection hot spot now. How and why did he decide on Tulsa?

LIASSON: Well, originally, Oklahoma had a very low rate. Cases did rise by 91% last week. That's a tremendous spike. But originally, Oklahoma had a low rate. It's a red state, very Trump-friendly. He won it by big, big margins last time, and that's why it was surprising that the crowd was smaller than expected. Before the rally, Trump said, we've never had an empty seat, and we certainly won't have one in Oklahoma.

But you know, the president was also defiant about the virus. In the speech, he said he told his people to slow down on testing. Otherwise, the numbers will go up, and things will look bad. Later, his campaign said he was only kidding, but of course, he's said things like that before in all seriousness.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah. I'm going to turn to something else. President Trump failed in his bid through the Justice Department to block former national security adviser John Bolton's book, right? A federal judge denied the DOJ's temporary restraining order.

LIASSON: That's right. It sounds like the book is going to be on sale next week as planned. What remains to be seen is whether the Trump administration can get Bolton to return the proceeds. The judge said that was certainly a possibility.

But Bolton is the latest and highest-ranking White House adviser who has joined this chorus of ex-national security officials painting a devastating portrait of the president. In his book, Bolton says at one point that obstruction of justice was a way of life in the White House. And regardless of what happens to Bolton and his book profits or if he faces some kind of criminal proceedings, we're getting to the point where that is the narrative of the Trump administration. We're not seeing books from former high-ranking officials that say Trump is a great leader.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson.

Thank you so much.

LIASSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.