Trump dismisses controversy over Tulsa rally, says it will be a ‘celebration’ of his campaign

WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump said in an interview that aired Friday that his decision to hold his first rally in three months in a rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma – the site of a horrific 1921 attack on African Americans, on the holiday marking the end of U.S. slavery – was not deliberate.

Fox News host Harris Faulkner asked Trump whether he chose the location and date on purpose, to which the president said “no,” even though his campaign has trumpeted the Juneteenth holiday when asked about its timing.

“Think about it as a celebration. My rally is a celebration. In the history of politics, I think I can say there’s never been any group or any person that’s had rallies like I do,” Trump said. “I go and I just say, give me the biggest stadium and we fill it up every time. We’ve never had a vacancy.”

The president sparked outrage after he revealed he would return to the campaign trail for his first rally in more than three months in Tulsa and on June 19.

In 1921, a white mob in Tulsa attacked a predominantly black neighborhood killing hundreds of people, most of them African-American, one of the most notorious acts of racial violence in U.S. history. . June 19, or Juneteenth, is also known as Emancipation Day and commemorates the date in 1865 when Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger traveled to Galveston, Texas, to inform residents that President Abraham Lincoln had freed the slaves and that slave owners had to comply with the Emancipation Proclamation. 

Despite Trump denying the significance of Tulsa, he’s never held a rally there and Oklahoma is a firmly red state he won by 36 percentage points in the 2016 election.

The trip comes after weeks of protests over the death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man who was pinned to the ground for nearly nine minutes under the knee of a white Minneapolis police officer. The rally announcement prompted backlash, with some suggesting he was being insensitive about holding an event on such a highly symbolic day amid nationwide demonstrations over racial inequality, but the campaign appeared to standby its timing.

When asked about why the campaign decided to hold the rally in Tulsa and on Juneteenth, senior Trump campaign adviser Katrina Pierson said in a statement Thursday, “as the party of Lincoln, Republicans are proud of the history of Juneteenth.” 

White House spokeswoman Kayleigh McEnany later told reporters Juneteenth was very “meaningful” for Trump.

“The African American community is very near and dear to his heart,” McEnany said. “At these rallies he often shares the great work he has done for minority communities. “

The rally will be Trump’s first in more than three months after coronavirus restrictions halted large-scale public events.

During the Fox interview, Trump also called a much-criticized photo of him posing with a bible in front of a historic church “a beautiful picture.” The president came under fire for using police and National Guard forces to remove peaceful protesters from the area just before the photo was taken.

“I think it was a beautiful picture. I’ll tell you, I think Christians think it was a beautiful picture,” he told Fox’s Faulkner.

His comments came a day after Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley said it was a “mistake” to accompany the president and other top administration officials on the walk across Lafayette Square to historic St. John’s Church, adding that his “presence in that moment and in that environment created a perception of the military involved in domestic politics.”

Defense Secretary Mark Esper also distanced himself from the president’s walk to St. John’s, saying he had nothing to do with the decision to clear the protesters. He told NBC News he didn’t know they were going to the church, then clarified the next day that he knew where they were going but not about the president’s planned “photo op” with the Bible.

“I mean, if that’s the way they feel, I think that’s fine. I have good relationships with the military,” Trump told Faulkner.

The photograph of Milley, in his camouflage combat uniform, and Defense Secretary Mark Esper walking along a path in Lafayette Square with Trump and other administration officials was condemned by a chorus of former military officials. Former Defense Secretary James Mattis slammed his former boss for ordering use of force for a photo op. Attorney General William Barr has since said his decision to clear the square was over safety concerns and unrelated to the president’s walk.