President Donald Trump warned those protesting his planned rally in Oklahoma they could be treated roughly, an opening threat a day ahead of what he says is the new kickoff of his reelection campaign.
Writing on Twitter, Trump lumped together "protesters, anarchists, agitators, looters or lowlifes" and said they would not be afforded what he's decried as gentle treatment if they gather outside his Tulsa event. It came the morning after he used a blatantly false video of young children to decry media coverage of American race relations, a move that drew a rebuke from Twitter.
The messages, which came as the nation marks the day in 1865 that the last enslaved Black people in the US learned they had been freed from bondage, made no attempt at striking a unifying or commemorative tone. Instead, Trump used his platform to heighten the drama surrounding his return to the campaign trail after a 110-day pandemic-forced absence and warn those who oppose him to stay away.
"Please understand, you will not be treated like you have been in New York, Seattle, or Minneapolis. It will be a much different scene!" he wrote on Friday morning.
It was a turnabout from Trump's declaration earlier this month that he is an "ally of all peaceful protesters," though not necessarily a surprising one given his repeated condemnation of demonstrations that, in some instances, turned violent.
Later in the day, Trump's spokeswoman Kayleigh McEnany said the President was referring only to "violent protesters, anarchists, looters, the kind of lawlessness that we saw play out before President Trump came out with the National Guard and calmed our streets with law enforcement."
As he heads into Saturday's rally, Trump is hoping to reset his campaign after a rocky stretch that has included widespread disapproval of his handling of racial demonstrations, a global public health crisis, two Supreme Court losses and, most recently, a stinging rebuke by his former national security adviser.
"Big crowds and lines already forming in Tulsa. My campaign hasn't started yet. It starts on Saturday night in Oklahoma!" he wrote.
Indeed, outside the Bank of Oklahoma Center in Tulsa, a line began forming earlier this week with rally-goers enthusiastically awaiting the President's arrival.
Tulsa's mayor, a Republican, signed an executive order on Thursday establishing a curfew for parts of the downtown area near the rally location, saying more than 100,000 people were expected in the vicinity of the event.
The mayor said "individuals from organized groups who have been involved in destructive and violent behavior in other States are planning to travel to the City of Tulsa for purposes of causing unrest in and around the rally."
Trump initially planned to hold the rally on Friday, but changed the date after learning it fell on Juneteenth, the historic anniversary of enslaved people in Texas learning they were free nearly three years after President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation.
On Friday, the White House issued a statement marking the holiday, writing it "reminds us of both the unimaginable injustice of slavery and the incomparable joy that must have attended emancipation. It is both a remembrance of a blight on our history and a celebration of our Nation's unsurpassed ability to triumph over darkness."
Yet the message of "triumph over darkness" was hardly visible on Trump's Twitter feed fewer than 30 minutes later, when he tweeted his threat against protesters.
Trump also complained about a recent Fox News poll showing him trailing his Democratic presidential election rival Joe Biden by double digits, recent Democratic political advertising, the Supreme Court's decision on immigration, and a message stating: "THE SILENT MAJORITY IS STRONGER THAN EVER BEFORE."
The previous evening, Trump tweeted an altered video purporting to show a "racist baby" that was meant to criticize the news media's coverage of race relations. The video featured a black and white toddler running down a sidewalk. The social media giant later flagged Trump's tweet as "manipulated media."
"The President was making a satirical point that was actually quite funny," McEnany said when questioned about the use of children to make what was apparently a political point.
In an interview with the Wall Street Journal this week, Trump said neither he nor his political advisers were aware of the meaning of Juneteenth when scheduling the rally in Tulsa. He said a black Secret Service agent explained it to him.
"Nobody had heard of it," Trump said. "Very few people have heard of it."
McEnany insisted on Friday that Trump "did not just learn about Juneteenth this week" and that a spike in Google searches proved "there were a lot of people who didn't know what Juneteenth was."
Trump eventually moved the rally by a day. But both its location and its timing remain controversial. Tulsa is the site of some of the worst racist violence in American history, a fact Trump has not addressed.
And the rally is being convened despite the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Oklahoma recently reported its largest single day increase in coronavirus cases since the start of the pandemic, and the arena where the rally will take place is requesting a written plan from the campaign "detailing the steps the event will institute for health and safety, including those related to social distancing."
The Trump campaign said afterward it takes "safety seriously," and noted hand sanitizer, temperature checks and masks will be provided to attendees, though actually wearing a mask won't be required.
"This will be a Trump rally, which means a big, boisterous, excited crowd," the campaign said.