US President Donald Trump returned to the campaign rally stage on Saturday, defying the pandemic and attacking Democratic rivals at an event with crowds far smaller than promised.
Gathering his political faithful for a much-hyped rally in Oklahoma, his first in three months, the Republican president sought to reinvigorate his flagging campaign in the face of a crushing health and economic crisis as well as protests against racial injustice that have swept the nation in recent weeks.
Mr Trump all but claimed victory over the pandemic that has killed some 120,000 Americans – "I have done a phenomenal job with it!" he insisted – even as six members of his own Tulsa advance team tested positive for Covid-19.
The event – which the White House promised would be flooded with up to 100,000 people, but actually failed to fill the 19,000-seat arena where Mr Trump spoke – has emerged as a flashpoint in the pandemic era.
But the president was more interested in reviving his political fortunes after several bruising weeks that saw continued economic woes tied to the pandemic, nationwide protests over racial injustice, the toppling of Confederate and other statues and critics including former aides savaging his performance.
"The silent majority is stronger than ever before," Mr Trump said in a rowdy, freewheeling speech in which he blasted his 2020 election rival, Democrat Joe Biden, as a "helpless puppet of the radical left."
"Five months from now we're going to defeat 'sleepy' Joe Biden," he said.
Many rally-goers wore red "Make America Great Again" hats or T-shirts, but very few wore masks and there was little social distancing, even though coronavirus cases have recently been skyrocketing in Oklahoma.
The president has downplayed the risk that the evening rally – with thousands of shouting, cheering attendees – might trigger a fresh outbreak, ignoring danger warnings by Tulsa health and municipal officials.
And he suggested that the "double-edged sword" of comprehensive coronavirus testing had led to the United States having the world's highest number of cases.
"Here is the bad part: When you do testing to that extent, you are going to find more people, you will find more cases," Mr Trump argued.
"So I said to my people, 'slow the testing down,'" he boomed.
A White House official later told AFP that Trump was joking.
The narrative of a trouble-free campaign event was punctured, however, when the campaign announced just hours before the rally that six members of its Tulsa advance team tested positive for coronavirus.
Mr Trump nevertheless reverted to full-on campaign mode, reviving themes that dominated his 2016 campaign: smearing immigrants, building a wall on the southern border, demanding flagburners be sentenced to jail and highlighting a rising stock market.
"If you see it happening on November 3," he said of America's potential rebound, "you don't have the guts to vote against Trump."
He notably steered clear until well into his one-hour, 45-minute speech of the racial tensions that have swept the country in the weeks since a handcuffed African American, George Floyd, was killed by police in Minneapolis.
Instead he warned that Democrats were seeking to erase American heritage, a reference to the tearing down of several statues of Confederate slave owners and other figures.
"The unhinged left-wing mob is trying to vandalise our history, desecrate our beautiful monuments, tear down our statues, and punish, cancel and persecute anyone who does not conform to their demands for absolute and total control," he said.
Rows of empty seats at the rally were partly attributed to a viral campaign by TikTok users and K-pop fans, who registered for tickets then failed to show up.
"The teens of America have struck a savage blow against @realDonaldTrump. All across America teens ordered tickets to this event. The fools on the campaign bragged about a million tickets. lol," veteran Republican strategist Steve Schmidt said in a tweet.
The stakes on Saturday could not have been higher – both for the health of thousands spending hours at the arena and for Mr Trump's political fortunes, five months before an election in which he trails in the polls.
"Today we're here to show we support President Trump and that we, the people, we'll win the 2020 election, no matter what the fake news media and other liberal, leftist, mind-controlling big firms are saying," said attendee Brad, who declined to provide his last name.
The rally has been controversial in part because it originally was scheduled for Friday – the Juneteenth commemoration of the end of slavery in the US – in a city known for one of the deadliest-ever massacres of African Americans.
Racial tensions have roiled the nation following the police killing of a black man, George Floyd, in Minneapolis, and Trump has fanned the flames with provocative rhetoric.
The president's supporters faced off with protesters shouting “Black Lives Matter" as hundreds of marchers flooded the city’s downtown streets. Many on foot chanted, and some occasionally got into shouting matches with Trump supporters, who outnumbered them and yelled, “all lives matter.”
After the rally, officers were seen using pepper spray to disperse protesters who temporarily blocked a police convoy.
Police made one arrest – a women who was seen on live video sitting cross-legged on the ground in peaceful protest when officers pulled her away by the arms and later put her in handcuffs. The woman, who said her name was Sheila Buck wore a t-shirt bearing the dying words of George Floyd “I Can’t Breathe.”
This was the first of Mr Trump's signature rallies since March 2, when the country went into pandemiarc lockdown.
The virus dramatically disrupted a once-booming economy, which had been Mr Trump's strongest re-election selling point.
With polls showing him trailing Biden, Mr Trump is eager to change the narrative, and rallies have long been his favourite political tool.
But while Mr Trump rolls the political dice, the crowd gambled with their health.
Oklahoma virus cases have spiked recently, and the state's total as of Saturday surpassed 10,000.
Rally organisers provided everyone with hand sanitiser, temperature checks and optional masks.
Attendees were required to sign a waiver protecting organisers from any liability in the event Covid-19 spreads at the venue.