One of Donald Trump's favorite lies is that he's "never had an empty seat" at one of his rallies. It's a demonstrably false claim the president has repeated over and over and over again, suggesting part of him was convinced that the fiction is fact.
Trump was so confident in the assertion that just last week, at a gathering in the White House cabinet room, the president looked ahead to his rally in Tulsa and told reporters, "[W]e expect to have, you know, it's like a record-setting crowd. We've never had an empty seat -- and we certainly won't in Oklahoma."
Yeah, about that....
President Donald Trump is "furious" at the "underwhelming" crowd at his rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, on Saturday evening, a major disappointment for what had been expected to be a raucous return to the campaign trail after three months off because of the coronavirus pandemic, according to multiple people close to the White House.... While the Trump re-election effort boasted that it would fill BOK Center, which seats more than 19,000 people, only 6,200 supporters ultimately occupied the general admission sections, the Tulsa fire marshal told NBC News.
It's worth appreciating the larger context. By all accounts, those who work around the president spend quite a bit of time trying to deal with his moods. Trump's aides, for example, have begun telling him that his poll numbers are fine, not because they are, but because lying to him about the data keeps him "from flying into a rage as much as he otherwise would."
Similarly, the president's re-election team spends a fair amount of money airing campaign ads in the D.C. market, not because they expect to win over local voters, but because putting the commercials where Trump can see them helps "soothe his anxieties."
It was against this backdrop that Team Trump organized a needlessly dangerous rally in a red state, not as part of a broader electoral strategy, but because it would make the president feel better to be greeted by an arena full of enthusiastic followers. "I guarantee you after Saturday, if everything goes well, he's going to be in a much better mood," a Trump political adviser told CNN on Friday.
At least that was the theory. In practice, everything did not "go well." The indoor venue was largely empty, and the area outside the arena -- what the campaign billed as the "Outdoor Experience" -- was a complete flop. The scheduled event outside the BOK Center was canceled for lack of interest, and the stage was torn down before the evening's festivities even began.
The rally was intended to represent the beleaguered president's triumphant return to the campaign trail -- an event that would re-launch his 2020 bid and send a signal of strength. It was instead of embarrassing failure with a thematic flare: instead of being greeted by throngs of supporters in red caps, Trump was surrounded by thousands of blue seats.
A Washington Post report added, "Relative to the campaign's expectations, this was a humiliation."
Ordinarily, we'd expect to hear Trump's aides argue -- with varying degrees of sincerity -- that this was the most well attended campaign event in American history, period. But the gathering in Tulsa failed so spectacularly that even Team Trump didn't make much of an effort to spin it.
"In the hours after the event, advisers and Republican strategists admitted the night was a flop," NBC News reported. A senior adviser conceded it was "a bad night," while an outside adviser added, "This was a major failure."
What's less clear is what Trump might do in the wake of such a failure. I tend to have no use for body-language analysis, but watching the video of the president returning to the White House on Saturday night, it was hard not to notice he looked like a crestfallen, defeated man.
A traditional president might shake off the setback, but for a man who prioritizes crowd sizes to an unhealthy degree, one shudders to think what Trump will do with his disappointment. He has, of course, been known to punish his team in the wake of events he perceived as insufficiently full.
Don't be too surprised if some of his top campaign aides spend the morning updating their resumes.