June 25, 2020 / 10:07 AM / 20 days ago

Trump team looks to revamp rallies after being rattled by Tulsa event

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Donald Trump’s campaign is considering a new approach to his signature rallies to ease fears about the coronavirus and has not ruled out staff changes after his disappointing return to the trail in Oklahoma, advisers say.

FILE PHOTO: Rows of empty seats are still unfilled as Republican U.S. presidential nominee Donald Trump begins his rally in Tampa, Florida, U.S. October 24, 2016. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

Other strategic shifts, including reinvigorating attacks on Democratic candidate Joe Biden, also are on the table as Trump trails his opponent in national polls ahead of the Nov. 3 election amid dissatisfaction over his response to the pandemic and U.S. civil rights protests.

The campaign had predicted Trump’s rally in Tulsa on Saturday would draw a record turnout. Instead, the 19,000-seat arena had thousands of empty seats, prompting the president to remark later: “How could this happen?” according to a Trump adviser.

The poor turnout has prompted discussion of whether some changes might be needed in the top tier of the campaign organization, two outside advisers said. They cautioned that it was unclear whether action would be taken.

Another adviser with knowledge of the campaign’s strategy said campaign manager Brad Parscale had appeared to be on thin ice in recent weeks and could take the blame after the underwhelming event.

“Donald Trump knows how much that rally cost, and there was no return on the investment. Someone is going to pay for this,” that adviser said.

Other advisers said, however, that Parscale’s job appeared to be safe and played down speculation of a shake-up.

Trump campaign spokeswoman Erin Perrine said: “Brad has built an excellent team and is doing a great job. He has a strong, 10-year relationship with the president and the entire Trump family.”

Concern about the virus, accompanying protests and media coverage about the risks led to fewer people showing up at the rally, campaign officials said. That reality has led the Trump team to consider using outdoor venues such as airplane hangars for future “Make America Great Again” rallies, which helped propel Trump to the White House in 2016.

The campaign is moving forward with smaller events in states including Pennsylvania, Ohio and Michigan, said the adviser with knowledge of the campaign’s strategy. Trump will travel to battleground state Wisconsin on Thursday.

But rallies are on hold at least for a couple weeks, the adviser said, adding that rules requiring participants in Oklahoma to waive their right to sue if they caught the virus had given some people pause.

“They want to get back to the rallies as quickly as possible, but with the current environment, it’s hard,” said the adviser, who participated in a call with campaign staff on Wednesday.

Jason Miller, who recently joined the campaign as a senior adviser, said locations and venues for future rallies would depend on relevant states’ guidelines and progress in reopening their economies from the virus-induced shutdown.

“We’re pushing full speed ahead with opportunities to put the president in front of as many people as possible,” Miller said.

FOCUS ON ECONOMY, BIDEN

Trump has spent recent days attacking his former national security adviser John Bolton, which some viewed as helpful to his campaign because it was seen as an attack on the “swamp.”

But one White House official said it was a distraction from a more effective message about boosting the economy. Reuters/Ipsos polling has shown more voters view Trump as a better steward of the economy than Biden.

“If Americans are making a decision about who can best lead ... an economic comeback, that’s the safest terrain for the president,” the official said.

Polling shows Trump is losing support among suburban women. The campaign is seeking to fix that deficit and focus more on defining Biden, the former vice president under President Barack Obama, who has avoided large public events during the pandemic.

Trump advisers repeatedly underscored the fact that there was plenty of time for course correction before the November election.

The 2016 campaign included multiple staff shake-ups and campaign managers. Trump’s first, Corey Lewandowski, was fired on June 20 of that year.

Staffing changes this time around are up in the air. The campaign said this week that White House spokesman Hogan Gidley would be joining the re-election effort as national press secretary.

One outside adviser said there were discussions about expanding Miller’s role.

In addition, that adviser said, Trump himself has frequently brought up for praise former strategist Steve Bannon, who is credited with helping Trump win Michigan and other crucial Midwestern states in 2016. Trump fired Bannon from the White House nearly three years ago, but Bannon has remained a loyalist. 

Reporting by Jeff Mason, Steve Holland and Jarrett Renshaw; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Peter Cooney

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