WASHINGTON – President Trump and his campaign are defending his right to gather indoors, despite the private discomfort of aides who have called it a political Russian roulette game and growing concern that such rallies could prolong the coronavirus pandemic.
“I’m on a stage, and it’s a long way off,” Mr. Trump said in an interview with the Las Vegas Review-Journal on Monday, after thousands of his supporters gathered Sunday night at a manufacturing plant in a suburb of Las Vegas, violating a state directive that limits indoor meetings to fewer than 50 people.
The decision to hold an indoor demonstration, officials said, was a last resort for a campaign that sought to procure five different outdoor locations. A Trump campaign official said everyone came under pressure from state officials not to host the rally.
Xtreme Manufacturing, which it eventually agreed to host, faced threats from the town of Henderson, Nev. Officials said in a letter made public that the city could charge a $ 500 fine for each person over the state limit of 50 people and suspend or revoke Xtreme Manufacturing’s Business License.
Mr. Trump was provocative during the demonstration. “If the governor comes after you, which he shouldn’t, I’ll be with you all the way,” he told the crowd.
Trump’s upcoming demonstrations in Wisconsin and Minnesota are slated for outdoor airport hangars, the type of president’s meeting has recently resumed programming with little fanfare but which still violates state guidelines by limiting them to less than 50 people. But some states like North Carolina, where Trump held an outdoor rally in Winston-Salem last week, have a First Amendment exemption that allows crowds to gather in the name of free speech. This has led the Trump campaign to distribute “This is a peaceful protest” placards during its rallies, arguing that participating in a rally is an act of political speech.
The campaign had no plans to announce large-scale events that would take place indoors, an official said.
But more than 100 people, most of whom wore no masks, flocked to the ballroom of an Arizona hotel for an event on Monday that was billed as a modest panel discussion with the president.
Officials said they never considered simply demolishing the demonstrations when their efforts to find an outdoor venue failed. For the president, the quiet return of the classic Trumpian political event was a way to give himself a sense of control at a time when he poor control over news events or cycles. Long-time consultants have said they are as important to handling a candidate who needed the cheering crowd to feel as excited as they were to energize the supporters themselves.
However, the return of the demonstrations was a turnaround for the Trump campaign.
Last month, the president told radio host Hugh Hewitt that he had no plans to hold election rallies due to concerns over the pandemic. “I would love to rally. We can’t because of Covid,” Trump said. “You know, you can’t have people sitting next to each other.”
Its critics said the recent demonstrations in the battlefield states were more a sign of despair than strength. The president is eager to generate news coverage; 50 days into election day, he chases former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., the Democratic candidate, in state battlefield polls and his campaign has taken down the ads as his cash advantage has vanished. Cable channels have cut live coverage of Trump demonstrations, but local affiliates still often carry it in full.
Tim Murtaugh, a spokesperson for the campaign, defended the decision to carry out an indoor demonstration in the midst of a pandemic.
“People are eager to see their president, and our first preference for places is places like airplane hangars,” he said. “But the fact remains that no one takes a look at the people who gamble in casinos or the tens of thousands of people protesting side by side. People should be able to come together peacefully under the First Amendment to hear the president of the United States. “
But the move to move forward created a wave of internal backlash, including from a senior Trump adviser who said the president was playing a game of Russian roulette in holding the rally indoors. The adviser, who requested anonymity so as not to anger Mr. Trump, said the campaign was taking a dismissive approach to the pandemic that could backfire politically. Some of the president’s staunchest defenders outside the administration have agreed.
“Indoor demonstrations are irresponsible,” Ari Fleischer, former White House press secretary for President George W. Bush and frequent defender of Mr. Trump, wrote on Twitter. “Covid-19 is real and this was a bad idea.”
In an interview, Mr. Fleischer said he thought the president would be damaged politically if there were waves of positive cases in Las Vegas. Weeks later a demonstration in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in June, the latest indoor rally convened by the president, the city’s top health official said an increase in coronavirus cases in the area is likely linked to the event. Herman Cain, the former Republican presidential candidate, died of Covid-19 after attending the Tulsa rally, although it was unclear whether he was exposed to the virus there or elsewhere.
But “more fundamentally, you just don’t take the risk,” Fleischer said. “Presidents should lead by example”.
In the White House, anyone who approaches the president, including senior staff, is tested for the virus. Trump himself is tested daily, if not more often. Most of the West Wing senior staff members work in the building, but the East Wing staff of Melania Trump, the first lady, work largely from home.
When traveling with the president, Ms. Trump requests that her staff and advanced team not travel with her to limit their exposure to the virus. According to an administration official, he refused to attend fundraising lunches for the campaign, citing his concerns about the pandemic.
Vice President Mike Pence also took a different approach. On Friday, he donned a mask while with other dignitaries at Ground Zero to commemorate the 19th anniversary of the September 11, 2001 attacks.