WASHINGTON – President Trump and his campaign are defending his right to gather indoors despite private unrest from aides who called it a game of political Russian roulette and growing concern that such gatherings could prolong the coronavirus pandemic.
“I’m standing on a stage and it’s very far away,” Trump said in an interview with The Las Vegas Review-Journal on Monday after thousands of his supporters gathered Sunday night inside a production facility in a Las Vegas suburb. a state directive restricting indoor gatherings to fewer than 50 people.
The decision to hold an indoor rally, officials said, was something of a last resort for a campaign that had sought to procure five different outdoor locations. A Trump campaign official said they were all facing pressure from state officials not to host the demonstration.
Xtreme Manufacturing, which eventually agreed to host, immediately faced threats from the city of Henderson, Nev. Officials said in a letter released that the city could charge a $ 500 fine for each person across the state limit of 50 people and suspend or revoke. Xtreme Manufacturing’s business license.
Mr. Trump had been defiant during the demonstration. “If the governor comes after you, which he should not do, I will be with you all the way,” he told the audience.
Upcoming Trump rallies in Wisconsin and Minnesota are planned for outdoor airport hangars, the kind of rally that the president recently resumed planning with little fanfare, but which still violates state guidelines that limit them to fewer than 50 people. But some states like North Carolina, where Mr. Trump held an outdoor rally in Winston-Salem last week, having an exception to the first amendment that allows crowds to rally in the name of free speech. It has prompted the Trump campaign to distribute signs reading “This is a peaceful protest” at its rallies, claiming participation in a demonstration is an act of political speech.
The campaign had no plans to announce major events that would take place indoors, an official said.
But more than 100 people, most of whom are not wearing masks, packed into a hotel ballroom in Arizona for an event Monday that was billed as a modest round table with the president.
Officials said they never considered simply scrapping the rally altogether when their efforts to find an outdoor location failed. For the president, the quiet return of the classic Trumpian political event has been a way to give himself a sense of control at a time when he has little control over events or news cycles. Long-term counselors said they were just as important in guiding a candidate who needed the encouraging crowds to feel energetic as they were in giving the supporters energy.
Still, the return of the rallies was a turnaround for the Trump campaign.
The president told radio host Hugh Hewitt last month that he had no plans to hold campaign meetings at all because of concerns about the pandemic. “I would love to hold the meetings. We can not because of Covid, “Mr Trump said. “You know, you can not have people sitting next to each other.”
His critics said the recent rallies in the battlefield states were more a sign of desperation than strength. The president is eager to create news coverage; with 50 days until election day, he is tracking former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., the Democratic candidate, in the statewide polls, and his campaign has pulled ads down as its cash benefit has evaporated. Cable channels have cut back on live coverage of Mr. Trump’s meetings, but local subsidiaries still often carry them fully.
Tim Murtaugh, a campaign spokesman, defended the decision to continue with an indoor meeting in the midst of a pandemic.
“People are eager to see their president, and our first preference for venues is places like hangars,” he said. “But the fact is that no one beats an eye on people who play in casinos, or tens of thousands of people who protest shoulder to shoulder. People should be able to rally peacefully during the first amendment to hear from the President of the United States. ”
But the decision to move on created a wave of internal setbacks, including from a top Trump adviser who said the president was playing a game of Russian roulette by holding the indoor rally. The adviser, who asked for anonymity so as not to anger Mr. Trump, said the campaign took a cavalier approach to the pandemic that could backfire. Some of the president’s loudest defenders outside the administration agreed.
“Indoor gatherings are irresponsible,” Ari Fleischer, a former White House press secretary to President George W. Bush and a frequent defender of Mr. Trumps, wrote on Twitter. “Covid-19 is real and this was a bad idea.”
In an interview, Fleischer said he thought the president would be hurt politically if there were increases in positive cases in Las Vegas. Weeks after a meeting in Tulsa, Okla., In June, at the last indoor gathering convened by the president, the city’s senior health official said an increase in the number of coronavirus cases in the area was likely linked to the event. Herman Cain, the former Republican presidential candidate, died of Covid-19 after participating in the Tulsa rally, though it was not clear if he was exposed to the virus there or elsewhere.
But “more basically, you just don’t take the chance,” Fleischer said. “Presidents must be examples.”
In the White House, anyone who comes near the president, including senior staff, is tested for viruses. Mr. Trump himself is tested daily, if not more often. Most West Wing senior employees work in the building, but the East Wing staff of Melania Trump, the first lady, works largely from home.
When she travels with the president, Ms. Trump asks that her own staff and advance team not travel with her to limit their exposure to the virus. She has declined to attend fundraising lunches for the campaign, citing her concern about the pandemic, according to an administration official.
Vice President Mike Pence has also chosen a different approach. On Friday, he wore a face mask as he stood with other high-ranking officials at zero to celebrate the 19th anniversary of the September 11, 2001 attacks.