WASHINGTON — Days before President Donald Trump was to hold his comeback rally in Tulsa, city officials scrambled to counter his June visit, even suggesting a different “national figure” should come on the same day to talk about race and systematic challenges.
Emails that were sent in the immediate days after the Trump rally was announced, and obtained this week by BuzzFeed News through a freedom of information request, reveal city officials looked to divert attention away from the president’s MAGA rally — his first one in months after the nation was virtually shut down because of the coronavirus. The officials expressed worry over messaging and sought to “counter the narrative he has established.”
“...but someone like Stacey Abrams, Bernice King, Oprah, LeBron James, etc. who could level the volume and provide a serious counter voice,” James Coles, the director of economic development wrote in a June 11 email.
In the end, officials agreed not to upstage the Black holiday celebrated on the same day: Juneteenth.
The pressure to counter the president’s message came, in part, because Trump had announced the event would be on Juneteenth, which commemorates the date the last enslaved person was freed in the United States. It seemed the president’s decision was even more stinging as the country was in the throes of nationwide protests against police brutality and systemic racism. And for some Tulsans, who live with the legacy of the 1921 Black Wall Street massacre, where white rioters set fire to the Black-owned business district killing as many as 300 Black residents — Trump had been particularly egregious.
“To hold a rally on Juneteenth is just horrible,” Krystal Reyes, the city’s chief resilience officer, wrote of the scheduled June 19 event.
Tulsa city officials either did not respond to requests for comment on the emails or declined to comment on Thursday.
When Kian Kamas, chief of economic development, suggested her fellow coworkers “push as a team” to ensure their values were reflected in handling the president’s arrival, a coworker responded in favor.
“I fully support a counter effort,” Becky Gligo, housing policy director, said in an email on June 11. “It makes me sick to think about him coming here on that day to exploit our City.”
It’s a sentiment that echoed in broader Tulsa among the city’s Black community leaders who for fear of spreading the coronavirus had canceled an annual outdoor event to celebrate Juneteenth. In late June, Lindsey Corbitt, a community leader in Tulsa, told BuzzFeed News she thought the president’s actions were “100% a slap in the face.”
Some city officials suggested working with Juneteenth organizers to amplify smaller events that were potentially happening. Others advocated to include leaders from the “Native American, Latin, and immigrant” communities. Yet another official chimed in, “More support to Juneteenth would be fantastic.”
And then the next day, after ongoing criticism for scheduling a rally in Tulsa on Juneteenth (and amid the coronavirus where social-distancing guidelines prohibited indoor gathering), Trump announced, via tweet, he’d reschedule his rally to June 20.
“Many of my African American friends and supporters have reached out to suggest that we consider changing the date out of respect for this Holiday, and in observance of this important occasion and all that it represents,” he wrote.
G.T. Bynum, a Republican, has served as Tulsa’s mayor since 2016. Emails on June 10 and June 11 show he declined seven interviews with different media outlets, responding to an aide’s requests with only: “I am not available.”
The rally would go on to make headlines for weeks, but not for the historic turnout Trump’s aide Brad Parscale promised. Health officials had advised against holding the arena-size event because of the coronavirus; teens hijacked the ticketing process, forcing aides to overshoot their attendee projections; several Trump campaign staffers tested positive for the coronavirus; city health officials said in July that the rally likely led to a rise in local COVID-19 cases; and Herman Cain, a former presidential candidate turned Trump supporter, died of COVID-19 after he was seen at the indoor Tulsa rally unmasked.
Most recently, Jack Graham, an aide to Bynum, resigned in late August and posted his letter of resignation on Twitter. In an interview with the New York Times, Graham explained his departure while adding that Bynum “was not the same mayor” he’d worked with three years earlier.
“Our duty as government officials in any executive position is to, first and foremost, protect the health and safety and well-being of the citizens that we represent,” Graham told the Times.
In contrast, the canceled Juneteenth event was rescheduled, and nonprofits banded together to schedule a larger collaboration. On Thursday, the city’s communication’s director confirmed the city helped expedite permits for the last-minute event. It is not clear if the city contributed otherwise.
The emails from June 11 illustrate how quickly the Trump event came together, as Tulsa officials emailed back and forth unclear, nine days before the scheduled event, where the rally would take place.
“Any idea where the President plans to hold his rally next week? The only quote I’ve seen referred to a beautiful building,” Coles said just over a week before the rally.
Additional reporting contributed by Katie J.M. Baker.