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US President Donald Trump has held his first campaign rally since March, when the US coronavirus lockdown began.

Earlier this week, Mr Trump boasted on Twitter that almost a million people had requested tickets for the event at Tulsa’s Bank of Oklahoma Center.

But the 19,000-seat arena was far from full and plans for him to address an outside “overflow” area were abandoned.

There were concerns the event could increase the spread of Covid-19.

Just hours before the rally, the campaign said six staff members involved in organising it had tested positive.

Mr Trump’s re-election campaign rally is one of the biggest indoor gatherings in the US since the country’s Covid-19 outbreak began.

Those attending had to sign a waiver protecting the Trump campaign from responsibility for any illness.

On Friday, Oklahoma’s supreme court rejected a lawsuit asking that social distancing guidelines be followed. However, the Trump campaign said attendees would have to pass temperature checks before being allowed into the venue – and that they would be offered face masks.

More than 2.2 million cases of Covid-19 and 119,000 associated deaths have been reported in the US, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.

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Mr Trump’s supporters gathered half-an-hour before the president was due on stage

The Trump campaign initially said that the president and Vice-President Mike Pence would first speak at an outdoor stage set up for overflow crowds.

Supporters had begun queuing earlier this week for a chance to get into the arena, amid expectations that at least 100,000 people would gather in central Tulsa.

But when the numbers failed to appear, campaign officials cancelled the outdoor appearance, blaming “radical protesters” and the media for attempting to “frighten off” supporters.

There were some volatile scenes outside the venue but no serious trouble was reported.

Inside the arena itself, the upper tier was largely empty, although the actual turnout is not yet clear.

What did Trump say?

In his opening remarks, Mr Trump said there had been “very bad people outside, they were doing bad things”, but did not elaborate.

He told those present that they were “warriors” for attending despite the coronavirus warnings and said that the “silent majority” was “stronger than ever before”.

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Attendees signed a waiver protecting the Trump campaign from responsibility for any illness

Taking aim at his Democratic presidential rival, he described Joe Biden as “a helpless puppet of the radical left”.

On the coronavirus response, Mr Trump said he had encouraged officials to slow down testing because it led to more cases being discovered. He described testing as a “double-edged sword”.

“Here is the bad part: When you do testing to that extent, you are going to find more people, you will find more cases,” he told the cheering crowd. “So I said ‘slow the testing down’. They test and they test.”

A White House official later said the president was “obviously kidding”.

What’s the background?

The rally has been held amid fears it could become a “super spreader” event. The number of new cases of Covid-19 in Oklahoma has been rising this week.

In a Facebook post, Tulsa Mayor GT Bynum acknowledged that Tulsa’s residents were divided over it being the first city to host such an event.

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People had to pass temperature checks before they could enter the venue

“We do this as our positive Covid-19 cases are rising, but while our hospital capacity remains strong. Some think it is great, some think it is reckless. Regardless of where each of us falls on that spectrum, we will go through it as a community,” he wrote.

Political rallies are a source of inspiration as well as invigoration for Donald Trump. He draws energy from arenas filled with enthusiastic supporters, and uses their responses to the various riffs in his sometimes long, free-form speeches to sense what issues resonate with his loyal base.

For more than three months, as Covid-19 has spread across the US, the president has had to do without these emotional and strategic sounding boards. Now, the rallies are coming back, even though cases of the virus are reaching new record peaks in many states and public health officials continue to warn of the dangers of large gatherings.

With less than five months until election day, the president is billing this as the beginning of his re-election bid. Given that he held his official campaign kick-off in Orlando almost exactly a year ago, it perhaps is better seen as a re-boot of a campaign that has struggled to gain its footing as the nation has been beset by the pandemic and mass demonstrations against institutional racism and excessive force by police.

The president is now billing his campaign around the slogan “the Great American Comeback”. Given the recent turmoil, and Mr Trump’s sagging poll numbers, he is clearly hoping the Tulsa rally is the beginning of his own political revival.

There were also concerns among officials in Tulsa that there would be clashes between supporters and opponents of the president.

Emotions are still running high following the killing of an unarmed black man, George Floyd, by police in Minneapolis last month, which sparked widespread anti-racism protests.

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Tulsa police removed a protester from near the location of the rally

Mayor Bynum declared on Thursday a curfew covering the area around the BOK Center, citing the risk of “civil unrest”. But on Friday, Mr Trump announced that the curfew had been lifted for “our many supporters”.

He also warned: “Any protesters, anarchists, agitators, looters or lowlifes who are going to Oklahoma please understand, you will not be treated like you have been in New York, Seattle, or Minneapolis. It will be a much different scene!”

Mr Trump had initially planned to hold the rally on Friday. But he changed the date last week after learning it fell on 19 June, known as Juneteenth, which marks the end of slavery in the US.

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Media captionJuneteenth: ‘This is such a change in history’

The choice of location is also controversial. In 1921, Tulsa was the scene of a massacre in which white mobs attacked black people and businesses, killing an estimated 300 people.

At a peaceful Juneteenth rally in Tulsa on Friday, the civil rights activist Al Sharpton said campaigners could “Make America Great” for everybody for the first time.


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