US President Donald Trump has declared that “the silent majority is stronger than ever before” as he held his first rally since March.
But it appeared that many of his “silent majority” had stayed at home, amid warnings from health officials about the risk of spreading the coronavirus.
The stadium has a capacity of 19,000 but organisers had said only 10,000 people would be allowed to enter.
The rally at the BOK stadium in Tulsa, Oklahoma, had been promoted as a comeback opportunity for Mr Trump – a chance to boost his campaign for re-election in November.
He is currently behind Democratic rival Joe Biden in many polls.
But in the hours before Mr Trump started speaking, crowds appeared to be significantly lighter than expected and campaign officials scrapped plans for him to first address an overflow space.
Mr Trump blamed the news media for saying “don’t go, don’t come, don’t do anything”, adding: “We begin our campaign… the silent majority is stronger than ever before.”
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He also blamed a group of Black Lives Matter protesters outside, a group also smaller than expected but largely peaceful, described by him as “the unhinged left-wing mob”.
The Trump campaign’s communications director, Tim Murtaugh, had said earlier: “Sadly, protesters interfered with supporters, even blocking access to the metal detectors, which prevented people from entering the rally.
“Radical protesters, coupled with a relentless onslaught from the media, attempted to frighten off the president’s supporters. We are proud of the thousands who stuck it out.”
There were confrontations between some protesters and Trump supporters but police said only one person had been arrested.
Scenes outside Trump rally show critical state of US democracy
Mr Trump also told the crowd that he had “saved hundreds and thousands of lives” by closing the US off to flights from China at the end of January as the coronavirus threat became clear.
He went on to describe testing for the coronavirus as a “double-edged sword”, saying that 25 million people had been tested in the US but “when you do testing to that extent, you’re going to find more people, you’re going to find more cases, so I said to my people ‘slow the testing down please’.”
A White House official said later that Mr Trump was “obviously kidding” with that remark.
The US is still struggling to contain COVID-19– which Mr Trump described as “Chinese kung flu” during the rally – leading many to question the wisdom of holding the rally, even if social distancing and mask-wearing were encouraged.
Just hours earlier, it had been revealed that six members of Mr Trump’s campaign team had tested positivefor coronavirus.
Those in attendance were even asked to waive their rights to sue the Trump campaign should they catch the virus, which has killed 463,000 people worldwide, including almost 120,000 in the US.
At least 10,040 people have tested positive in Oklahoma and 368 people have died.
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Mr Trump also suggested anyone burning the American flag should be jailed for a year, despite this being an act of protest protected by the First Amendment.
The Biden campaign said the rally was a “debacle”, adding: “President Trump just admitted that he’s putting politics ahead of the safety and economic well-being of the American people – even as we just recorded the highest number of new COVID-19 cases in almost two months and 20 million workers remain out of work.”