LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
We are in the midst of a historic crisis here in the United States. A hundred and twenty-two thousand Americans have died of COVID-19. Twenty million are unemployed. And protests for racial justice continue across the country. Last night, President Trump made his pitch for reelection. He told his supporters he was riding high before the coronavirus set in.
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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: But we're still riding high because you know what? On November 3, we're going to win. We're going to win.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: The president spoke to a crowd that didn't fill the arena but was packed together, mostly without masks, in Tulsa, Okla., a city where infections have been on the rise. NPR lead political editor Domenico Montanaro was following the president's return to the campaign trail, and he joins us now.
DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: Hey, Lulu.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: All right. Let's talk first about the president's message. This was intended to show that the country is reopening, that things are going up and getting better. Was that the focus?
MONTANARO: Not really. I mean, this was about the president's reelection. You know, he delivered what was frankly a pretty disjointed speech that kind of meandered at times. But this really centered on that same old culture war and darkness in 2016. He claimed he'd saved millions of lives with his coronavirus response, despite downplaying the virus for months. He used racist tropes and stereotypes to describe the virus, calling it the Chinese flu. He painted this image of this liberal dystopia, frankly, that would take hold if Democrat Joe Biden wins the presidential election. Let's take a listen to how he framed it.
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TRUMP: If the Democrats gain power, then the rioters will be in charge. And no one will be safe, and no one will have control. Joe Biden is not the leader of his party. Joe Biden is a helpless puppet of the radical left.
MONTANARO: You know, it's - the tough part here for him is painting Biden as the most radical Democrat - you know, is a tough thing to do. You know, Biden has already disavowed many of the more extreme views. You know, like, defund the police, for example, is something that Biden has said he's not interested in doing.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: The president talks a lot about his crowd size, right? The campaign says they had a million ticket requests, but the arena had a lot of empty space. What happened?
MONTANARO: They were expecting an overflow crowd. They were expecting people to be outside. There - the president was supposed to give a second speech. They wound up dismantling that stage because there just wasn't an overflow crowd. And, you know, they blame protesters for not letting people in, which people on the ground did not see. They saw very peaceful protests, for the most part. And there were reports that teenagers on TikTok and K-pop fans were encouraging people to make reservations for the rally with no actual plans of going.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: What was the response from the Biden campaign and the Democrats last night?
MONTANARO: Biden campaign surrogates were characterizing the speech pretty much as a temper tantrum in the middle of a national crisis. And they really seized on this quote from Trump saying that he encouraged his administration to slow down COVID-19 testing. You know, his campaign and the White House say that he was just joking. But he has said similar things like that before, where he thinks that too much testing makes the U.S. look bad. Biden himself simply tweeted out, speed up the testing. The campaign called it an outrageous moment that'll be remembered long after the debate. And we're already seeing a Democratic group up with an ad this morning.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: NPR's Domenico Montanaro, thank you so much.
MONTANARO: You're welcome.
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