Exclusive: Internal documents show officials waved red flags before Trump’s Tulsa rally
Oklahoma health officials raised red flags before President Trump’s indoor rally in June, warning there could be significant spikes of coronavirus cases and deaths from the event, according to internal state documents.
Dozens of emails obtained by The Hill through a state freedom of information request reveal growing angst within the Oklahoma public health department in the days leading up to the June 20 rally.
Aaron Wendelboe, who at the time was the Oklahoma State Department of Health’s epidemiologist, sent one email titled: “How strongly do I speak out?”
“I am concerned that the mass indoor gathering in Tulsa of 19,000 people will directly lead to deaths in Oklahoma,” Wendelboe stated in the email, which has not previously been reported. “As the state epidemiologist, I feel I have a responsibility to speak out and warn of the estimated risk.”
In an internal risk analysis, Wendelboe, who left the department after his contract expired this summer, estimated that the event would likely lead to “at least 2 deaths and probably closer to 10.”
Five days before the event, in a separate email to Tulsa Health Department Director Bruce Dart, Wendelboe wrote: “I’m not sure of any instance where we would hold a public event and say, ‘…and by the way, there is a chance that attending this could lead to a minimum of two deaths.’”
Wendelboe referred questions about his warnings to the Oklahoma State Department of Health.
The Trump campaign had anticipated a crowded event at Tulsa’s BOK Center and had set up a stage outside the event for speeches in addition to the main event that was held inside.
Instead, perhaps in part because of the worries of the coronavirus at the time, only 6,200 people attended the rally, where Trump spoke for roughly 100 minutes.
It’s unclear how many coronavirus cases can be linked to the rally, though two weeks after it took place, Dart said it had “more than likely contributed” to a jump in cases. Dart on June 13 had called for the rally to be postponed.
Herman Cain, who ran for president in 2012, attended the event but did not wear a mask. He was hospitalized nearly two weeks later and died of complications from COVID-19 on July 30 at the age of 74. Trump this summer said he doesn’t believe Cain contracted the virus at the rally, where masks were not mandated and few wore them.
A half-dozen staffers working on the advance team for the rally tested positive for COVID-19 and were immediately quarantined, according to a June statement from the Trump campaign.
Trump, who is trailing in national and swing-state polls in the presidential race, has stepped up campaign events in a bid to stoke enthusiasm for his candidacy.
On Sunday, he held an indoor campaign rally in Henderson, Nev. — the first for Trump since the Tulsa gathering.
The event attracted criticism from public health experts, but the Trump campaign defended it, saying it was held under precautions for public health.
“If you can join tens of thousands of people protesting in the streets, gamble in a casino, or burn down small businesses in riots, you can gather peacefully under the 1st Amendment to hear from the President of the United States,” Tim Murtaugh, Trump’s 2020 communications director, said in a statement.
Ahead of Trump’s Tulsa rally, there were clear differences between public health officials in the state and Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt (R), who had invited Trump to the city. Stitt in July became the first governor to publicly reveal he had contracted COVID-19, though he says he did not get the virus at the rally.
The Oklahoma state agency emails show that public health officials were concerned that prior to Trump’s visit, cases were already on the rise and specifically in Tulsa. Eight days before the rally, the Tulsa Health Department “reported its highest daily increase of COVID-19 cases to date,” according to a June 12 press release. In that media statement, Dart is quoted as saying, “I have concerns about large groups of people gathering indoors for prolonged lengths of time.” The department stressed the need for people to cover their face at such gatherings.
It is unclear if Wendelboe’s risk assessment was shared with Stitt, though the internal documents show there was communication between the state health department and the governor’s office. Neither the health department nor Stitt’s office commented for this article.
The documents reviewed by The Hill show there was a scramble to test people ahead of the rally and to send resources to Tulsa for the event. One internal email emphasized the need “to test as many Tulsa residents as possible prior to the Presidential visit.”
The Oklahoma State Department of Health was dealing with a flurry of media inquiries as the rally approached.
Questions from The Associated Press, CBS News, Newsweek and others challenged the state’s public health officials on the dangers and possible consequences of the rally. A draft media statement attributable to Oklahoma Health Commissioner Lance Frye was crafted and circulated internally. The initial version said in part, “We strongly encourage those who intend to participate in a large gathering to plan ahead by getting tested for COVID-19.”
The final version was tweaked to read, “We continue to strongly encourage…”
The staffer who proposed the accepted change wrote in an email, “The thought being there is nothing new here. This has nothing to do with this gathering vs. any other one.”
Outside public health experts lobbied the agency to do more, with one email claiming state health officials had the authority to ban the rally: “The upward trend in Tulsa is already alarming. Act now before the situation gets worse. Postponing President Trump’s rally will save countless lives.”
The documents show there was widespread speculation days before the event that it wouldn’t happen.
One internal June 15 email stated, “There are rumors flying that Tulsa City Council may vote as early as today or tomorrow to ban the Trump rally in light of increases in COVID-19 cases.” The email also mentioned the state GOP was scheduled to have a press conference to address the rally.
But the City Council didn’t act, and David McLain, the chairman of the Oklahoma Republican Party, defended the rally, stating, “The BOK Center seats about 20,000. The intent is to fill it up with people.”
The lower-than-expected attendance at the rally reportedly infuriated Trump. Weeks later, the president replaced campaign manager Brad Parscale with Bill Stepien.