So it was a joke. The question is — a joke on whom?
At Donald Trump's Tulsa, Oklahoma, campaign rally Saturday, his first in months, Trump shrugged off the highly contagious virus we call COVID-19 but Trump still refers to in derogatory racial terms. Then he added "Here's the bad part. When you do testing to that extent, you will find more cases. So I said to my people, 'Slow the testing down, please.' They test and test."
The White House quickly insisted he was joking, but let's give his quote a little context.
A few hours before the largely fizzled rally, the campaign disclosed that six Trump campaign staff members who had been working on the rally had tested positive for the coronavirus during routine screening. And The New York Times reported that two members of the Secret Service in Tulsa also tested positive for the virus, according to people familiar with the matter.
The Times wrote: "Mr. Trump, who was made aware of the sick campaign aides before departing for the rally, was incensed that the news was made public ... ."
Trump has long wanted to make America believe he's bullied the virus into submission, and suggesting that we test too much fits his manipulative narrative.
But joking does not. Say it's a joke to the nearly 2.3 million Americans who know they have or have had the virus. Tell that to the families of the more than 120,000 who have died from it. Tell it to the tens of millions of people who are unemployed because of it. Tell it to them even as the U.S. accounts for 20% of new cases globally while we only have 4.3% of the world's population.
And look at what the president focused on before he saw the sea of empty seats at his rally: firing Geoffrey Berman, the top federal prosecutor in Manhattan who had been leading politically sensitive investigations into people in Trump's orbit in the run-up to November's election. But Berman's probe targets were just part of his problem.
The Wall Street Journal on Monday reported that the day before Attorney General William Barr abruptly announced plans to replace Berman, supervisors in Barr's Justice Department asked Berman to sign a letter criticizing New York Mayor Bill de Blasio for the city's enforcement of social-distancing rules. Berman had refused, calling it the political stunt that it was.
Trump desperately wants the virus to "just fade away," but he can't bully the virus in the same way he can bully America. That seemed evident Monday when he declined in an interview with Scripps Television to directly answer whether he had told his administration to slow down coronavirus testing.
Suddenly, White House trade adviser Peter Navarro said the Trump administration is preparing for a possible second coronavirus wave as 29 states and U.S. territories logged an increase in their seven-day average of new reported cases after many lifted restrictions in recent weeks.
Then came another, quieter White House announcement: Temperature checks for visitors to the complex will be scaled back, but not for those "expected to come into contact with President Trump and Vice President Pence," wrote the Washington Post.
Back to the joking. As Trump joked in the half-full Tulsa stadium meant to hold 19,000, he spoke to a wall of second-level empty seats. The New York Times wrote about the failed rally this way:
"Exactly what went wrong was still being dissected on Sunday. But a broad group of advisers and associates acknowledged to one another that Mr. Trump had not been able to will public opinion away from fears about the spread of the coronavirus in an indoor space. And they conceded that myriad polls showing Mr. Trump's eroded standing were not fake, and that he might be on course to lose to former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., the presumptive Democratic nominee, in November."
Hundreds of teenage TikTok users and K-pop fans also are claiming some credit, saying they used their cell phones to sign up for free rally tickets though they never intended to go. It was their own joke on Trump the joker.
On the other hand, Trump campaign officials blamed the media for raising virus concerns and protesters who they said stopped supporters from entering the rally.
The problem with those claims are clear in news video. There were few protests. The campaign cancelled planned outside speeches by the president and vice president when the anticipated overflow crowd didn't materialize. And the Tulsa fire marshal counted 6,200 scanned tickets of attendees — not including staff, media or those in box suites.
Steve Schmidt, a longtime Republican strategist and now a Never Trumper, summed it up this way on Twitter: "This is what happened tonight. I'm dead serious when I say this. 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. @ProjectLincoln."
Actually, they are all wrong. The real joke is Trump, himself. And it's up to all of America to fix it in November.