WASHINGTON (AFP) - US President Donald Trump's re-election campaign on Sunday (June 21) blamed the disappointing crowd at his Tulsa rally on protesters creating a hostile atmosphere and blocking supporters from getting into the arena.
The White House had promised the much-hyped event - Trump's first rally in three months - would be flooded with up to 100,000 people, but television images showed large sections of empty seating in the 19,000-capacity BOK Center.
A outdoor event for the overflow crowd was cancelled because no one showed up, despite the campaign hyping huge interest ahead of time, with more than a million ticket requests.
Senior Trump campaign aide Mercedes Schlapp told "Fox News Sunday" that attendees were unable to get into the BOK Center.
"There were factors involved, like they were concerned about the protesters who were coming in. There were protesters who blocked the (attendees)," Schlapp said.
"And so we saw that have an impact in terms of people coming to the rally."
Schlapp went on to say there were families that "didn't want to bring - couldn't bring - their children because of concerns of the protesters."
Schlapp was echoing an explanation first offered Saturday night by Trump campaign communications director Tim Murtaugh, who said protesters were "even blocking access to the metal detectors, which prevented people from entering." But reporters on the ground said they saw no problems for people trying to get in.
Reports have been circulating in the last week that teen users of social media platform TikTok were block-booking tickets in a bid to embarrass the campaign.
Former Republican strategist and Trump critic Steve Schmidt said teenagers nationwide had ordered tickets without intending to turn up to ensure there would be empty seats.
He tweeted that his 16-year-old daughter and her friends had requested "hundreds" of tickets, and received responses from numerous parents saying their children had done the same thing.
Trump has something of an obsession with big crowds, frequently boasting about the size of his rallies, compared to those of Joe Biden, his Democratic rival for November's presidential election.
Schlapp mocked Biden for a recent event in which organizers followed social distancing guidelines, saying the former vice president couldn't pull in crowds like Trump's.
"I mean, Joe Biden has an event... with empty folded chairs and painted circles on the floor. I'd love to see a Joe Biden rally. Let's bring it on, because there is no comparison," she said.
Schlapp told Fox News over 5.3 million people had watched the rally online, meaning "the reach was far and wide." Trump is trailing Biden by 9.5 points in an average of recent nationwide polls curated by polling data aggregator RealClearPolitics.
Celebrity critics and Democratic politicians took to Twitter to mock Trump over the disappointing attendance.
"The last time I saw a crowd this small was Trump's Inauguration," tweeted Pennsylvania congressman Brendan Boyle.
"I think I sold that same place out in five minutes," tweeted triple Grammy Award-winning US singer Pink.
Adding to the sense that the rally had turned out to be something of a misstep for Trump, six members of an advance team working in Tulsa ahead of the rally tested positive for Covid-19 just hours before the president took the stage.
Coronavirus cases have recently been skyrocketing in Oklahoma and local health officials had asked the Trump campaign not to go ahead with the rally, fearing it would become a "superspreader" event.
"Here's my theory; don't hurt the people that love you," Pink added.
"I would never ask people to come to an arena right now. No good person would."