Did Team Trump deliberately undermine social distancing in Tulsa?

The Tulsa arena that hosted Trump's rally wanted to put distance between attendees. The Trump campaign reportedly felt differently.
Image: President Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally at the BOK Center, Saturday, June 20, 2020, in Tulsa, Okla.
President Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally at the BOK Center, Saturday, June 20, 2020, in Tulsa, Okla.Evan Vucci / AP

On Friday, Americans received their first briefing in a long while from the White House Coronavirus Taskforce -- evidently, it still exists -- which included some advice from Vice President Mike Pence. The American people, Pence said, should "heed the guidance" from local health officials.

He added that people should "respect the guidance" from local health officials, and "listen to what their state and local health officials are directing them to do."

It led CBS News' Paula Reid to raise an uncomfortable question:

"It really does sound though like you are saying, 'Do as we say not as we do.' You are telling people to listen to local officials, but in Tulsa, you defied local health officials to have an event that -- even though you say it didn't result in a spike -- dozens of Secret Service agents, dozens of campaign staffers are now quarantined after positive tests.... So how can you say that the campaign is not part of the problem that Dr. Fauci laid out?"

The vice president replied, "Well, I want to remind you again that the freedom of speech and the right to peacefully assemble is enshrined in the Constitution of the United States and even in a health crisis the American people don't forfeit our constitutional rights."

The response made less sense than Pence seemed to realize. Yes, the First Amendment remains intact, but there's nothing in the Constitution that compels a politician to ignore local health officials and host an indoor rally during a pandemic in a community where infections rates were on the rise.

Making matters worse, that rally may have been made more dangerous than it needed to be. The Washington Post reported over the weekend:

In the hours before President Trump's rally in Tulsa, his campaign directed the removal of thousands of "Do Not Sit Here, Please!" stickers from seats in the arena that were intended to establish social distance between rallygoers, according to video and photos obtained by The Washington Post and a person familiar with the event. The removal contradicted instructions from the management of the BOK Center, the 19,000-seat arena in downtown Tulsa where Trump held his rally on June 20.

According to the reporting, arena management purchased 12,000 "do-not-sit" stickers for the president's event for obvious reasons: the goal was to put some distance between attendees in the hopes of preventing the spread of the virus. The stickers were already in place "when Trump's campaign told event management to stop and then began removing the stickers" ahead of the president's arrival.

The good news, at least from a public-health perspective, is that attendance at the campaign rally was embarrassingly bad.

For its part, a Trump campaign spokesperson said in a statement that last week's event in Tulsa "was in full compliance with local requirements." In a separate statement, the campaign added, "There were signs posted and we are not aware of any campaign staff asking that they be removed."