Trump Resumes the Rallies He Cherishes, but Covid Vexes His Plans

WASHINGTON — With cheering crowds, inflated and false claims, and inflammatory partisan rhetoric, President Trump has resumed the mode of politicking he enjoys most: entertaining his supporters at campaign-style rallies.

Standing in a sunset glow Tuesday night at an airport hangar in Winston-Salem, N.C., Mr. Trump looked and sounded like the political candidate he was in the pre-coronavirus era. His playlist, featuring “Y.M.C.A” by the Village People as his inexplicable walk-off song, was back.

And so was he, as he resuscitated old obsessions, like the “perfect call” to Ukraine that ultimately led to his impeachment, and a stale riff about how his coveted border wall would keep undocumented immigrants out of the country — a timeless device, just like the wheel.

It was his latest stop in a tour that so far has included appearances at airfields in battleground states like Pennsylvania, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Arizona and New Hampshire. The campaign did not announce it was resuming the rallies. It simply started scheduling them.

But Mr. Trump’s preference for celebratory, in-person appearances is now running headlong into the issue he likes least: the restrictions of the coronavirus pandemic. In Nevada, where the president had rallies in Reno and Las Vegas scheduled for this weekend, both events were scuttled on Wednesday.

The Reno-Tahoe Airport Authority informed the tenants that lease the hangar there that the event Mr. Trump planned to hold on Saturday was in violation of the state directive limiting gatherings to 50 people.

“This has nothing to do with politics,” said Daren Griffin, the president and chief executive of the airport authority. “We would hold our tenants to the same standard whether it was a Democratic or Republican rally or any other type of gathering.”

Campaign officials said the Las Vegas event had also been canceled.

For months, Mr. Trump has been pushing to bring back his signature rallies and return to the campaign trail, and officials have always assumed they would stage such events again in the final months before Election Day, despite case numbers of the virus remaining persistently high across much of the country.

“People are ready,” said Tim Murtaugh, communications director for the Trump campaign. “People are ready to return to a more normal life.”

On Tuesday night, for instance, Trump supporters gathered to hear the president speak, many of them choosing not to wear masks or practice social distancing as they chanted “We! Love! You!” They had signed up online for tickets, just like in the old days, and were given masks, temperature checks and hand sanitizer on site, which they were encouraged to use.

The campaign called it a “Great American Comeback” event. Despite North Carolina’s restrictions limiting outdoor gatherings to 50 people, thousands converged under the protected banner of political speech, and state health officials did not try to stop them.

Campaign aides handed out signs that read “This Is a Peaceful Protest,” a trolling reference to what they believe was a free pass given to the Black Lives Matter protesters who came together in cities across the country over the summer after the killing of George Floyd.

Kayleigh McEnany, the White House press secretary, defended the president’s right to hold rallies.

“People have a First Amendment right, if they so choose to express their political opinion in the form of a peaceful protest,” she said at a news conference Wednesday. “If you’re allowed to march in aggregate, you are also allowed to show up at a political rally.”

The airport crowds are smaller than the indoor arena events the president used to headline, but officials said the hangar setup required less lead time to organize and was often less expensive to stage.

“This is better than the arenas, I have to say,” Mr. Trump said Tuesday night.

“I get off the plane, I make a speech, I get the hell out of here,” he told supporters last week in Latrobe, Pa.

A spokesman for Mr. Trump’s Democratic rival, Joseph R. Biden Jr., said the return of the rallies was in line with how the president has treated the coronavirus since March.

“This president’s contempt for experts and willful disregard of science has led to the unnecessary death of thousands of Americans from Covid-19,” said T.J. Ducklo, a Biden spokesman. “Joe Biden will always put the health and safety of the American people first, and we have countless examples for why the same can’t be said for Donald Trump.”

Other Biden officials said they thought the plan to conduct rallies would ultimately backfire, because “real voters,” including seniors, would be frightened by images of crowds not wearing masks or social distancing.

Still, Trump campaign officials said they liked the contrast the rallies created between their campaign and Mr. Biden’s. The events showed Mr. Trump surrounded by supporters in a way that underscored how small and remote Mr. Biden’s events felt, the officials said, while also sending a message that America is open again — something the president has been trying to do, without success, since March when he declared the country would reopen by Easter.

Trump advisers cited an added benefit to the return of the campaign rally: helping with “candidate maintenance” by giving the president a vehicle allowing him to vent.

But fighting with Democratic officials about their right to stage the events in the first place could be helpful to them, too, the advisers said, perhaps stoking the grievances of the president’s supporters.

The Trump campaign’s co-chair in Nevada, Adam Laxalt, blamed political retribution from the state’s Democratic governor, Steve Sisolak, despite the fact that Mr. Sisolak said his office had no involvement in the planning, or canceling, of the Trump campaign events.

“This is unprecedented – to cancel an incumbent President’s campaign stop inside 60 days of a major contested election in a swing state,” Mr. Laxalt tweeted. “This isn’t over!”

In a statement, Mr. Murtaugh claimed that “Democrats are trying to keep President Trump from speaking to voters” and said that the president would still travel to Nevada on the dates planned. He did not say what Mr. Trump would do instead of the rallies.

Other states with restrictions on outdoor gatherings, like North Carolina, have allowed the Trump gatherings to go on despite the violations, because they believe they cannot limit their right to freedom of political speech.

In Michigan, where the president is scheduled to hold a hangar rally in Freeland on Thursday night, outdoor events are limited to 100 people and attendees are required to wear masks and maintain social distancing of six feet. Nevertheless, airport officials said they were preparing for up to 5,000 people to show up for the president’s rally, in a county that has had 2,520 cases of coronavirus and 129 deaths.

“With such short notice — we got notified Saturday morning that he was coming in and we met with Secret Service over the weekend — it has definitely been a challenge,” said James Canders, the director of the MBS International Airport.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, told CNN the event was “very distressing,” but her office was not planning to stop it.

“The governor’s office doesn’t make individual enforcement decisions,” said Tiffany Brown, a spokesman for Ms. Whitmer.

Kathleen Gray contributed reporting from West Bloomfield, Mich., and Sydney Ember from Connecticut.