White House officials on the defensive after Trump says he wanted testing slowed down

People wait to attend a rally with US President Donald Trump this evening at the BOK Center on June 20, 2020, in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

In a shocking admission during his Tulsa, Oklahoma, rally on Saturday night, President Donald Trump said he had told officials in his administration to slow down coronavirus testing because of the rising number of cases in America.

"You know testing is a double-edged sword," Trump said while complaining about press coverage of his handling of the virus. Claiming the US has now tested some 25 million people, he added: "Here's the bad part ... when you do testing to that extent, you're going to find more people; you're going to find more cases. So I said to my people, slow the testing down please."

It was a stunning revelation given that nearly 120,000 people have died in the United States from the coronavirus and medical experts have long said that testing is critical to identifying cases, tracing them and stopping the spread of the virus.

An administration official told CNN later Saturday that the President was "obviously kidding," and White House trade adviser Peter Navarro said Sunday that the remark was made in jest.

"Come on now, that was tongue in cheek," Navarro told CNN's Jake Tapper on "State of the Union." "That was a light moment for him at a rally."

But acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf said the President's comments reflected his "frustration" with the relentless focus on the increasing Covid-19 case count in America.

"What you heard from the President was frustration -- frustration in the sense of that we are testing, I believe we've tested over 25 million Americans. We've tested more than any other country in this world," Wolf said during an interview Sunday on CBS' "Face the Nation." "Instead, the press and others, all they want to focus on is an increasing case count."

Still, the campaign of Trump's rival Joe Biden and Democratic organizations are now racing to get this comment in as many ads as possible, a Biden aide and operatives from multiple Democratic super PACs told CNN.

On Sunday, the Democratic group American Bridge launched what it described as a five-figure digital ad in swing states highlighting the President's comment and a stinging tag line: "Donald Trump's lost time cost lives."

Symone Sanders, a senior adviser to Biden, said that Trump's comment about testing was "the most damning thing" from the rally.

"This is an appalling attempt to lessen the numbers only to make them look good," Sanders said on "Fox News Sunday." "That's what will be remembered long after last night's debacle of a rally -- the admission of the President that he slowed testing for his political benefit."

At another point during Trump's Saturday night rally, which drew a smaller-than-expected crowd, the President said Covid-19 has more names than any other disease: "I can name Kung Flu," he said using a racist term, "I can name 19 different versions of them."

In a nearly two-hour speech that marked his return to the campaign trail after a three-month absence due to the coronavirus pandemic, Trump relished the opportunity to slash at the media, "leftist radicals" who he said are taking over America's streets, and Biden, the former vice president, who he portrayed as weak and mentally incapacitated.

Though Trump read, at times, from a teleprompter and homed in on his vow to be a "law and order" president, he rambled through a long list of other grievances -- giving a lengthy soliloquy about the circumstances that led to his halting walk down a ramp after his speech at West Point last week.

He railed against press coverage of Covid-19, claiming that he has saved lives and reporters have not given him credit. It was in that context that he said he had urged aides to slow testing.

Trump's speech Saturday night, however, centered on what he frames as America's need for a law-and-order president who can push back against the ideas of the radical left, which he argued Biden is too weak to do.

When warning against calls from some progressives to defund the police, Trump again used racist language as he told a fictional story about a woman calling for help during a break-in of her home.

"It's one o'clock in the morning," Trump said, and "a very tough hombre is breaking into the window of a young woman, whose husband is away, as a traveling salesman or whatever he may do. And you call 911, and they say, 'I'm sorry this number is no longer working.'"

Vilifying protesters

He touted the accomplishments of his administration while vilifying protesters -- whom he referred to as "radicals" and "thugs" -- for taking to the streets to protest racism in the days since George Floyd's death at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer.

He argued that his administration's "incredible success in rebuilding America" stands in stark contrast to "the extremism, and destruction, and violence of the radical left" and said he sent the National Guard into Minneapolis to restore order when the situation was getting out of control.

"Americans have watched left wing radicals burn down buildings loot businesses, destroy private property, injure hundreds of dedicated police officers," he said.

"Does anybody honestly think he controls these radical maniacs?" Trump said of Biden. "He will surrender your country to these mobsters."

"If the Democrats gain power, then the rioters will be in charge and no one will be safe," the President added.

He pledged to protect the Second Amendment in light of the protests, saying, "When you see those lunatics all over the streets, it's damn nice to have arms."

He charged that Democrats are trying to "demolish our heritage" -- referring to the tearing down of Confederate monuments -- and replace it with their "oppressive regime."

"These people are stone-cold crazy," Trump said.

Trump also advocated for jailing protesters who burn the American flag, calling on the two Oklahoma senators in the crowd to craft legislation. "We ought to come up with legislation that if you burn the American flag, you go to jail for one year," the President said. "You know, they talk about freedom of speech, and I believe in freedom of speech. But that's desecration."

He described Republicans as the "party of liberty, equality and justice for all" and "the party of Abraham Lincoln."

Trump did not take the opportunity to address the systemic racism that the country is grappling with, instead lobbing attacks against his opponent. "Racial justice begins with Joe Biden's retirement from public life," Trump said.

"Five months from now we're going to defeat Sleepy Joe Biden," he said, repeatedly mocking Biden by suggesting that he often doesn't know what state he's campaigning in or what subject he's talking about.

Smaller-than-expected crowd

In the days leading up to Trump's rally, he and his allies ginned up expectations for a massive crowd with campaign officials telling CNN that more than a million people had registered to attend, and one local official stating they expected 100,000 to show up near the arena.

But those crowds didn't appear as large as expected Saturday afternoon, leading to an abrupt change of plans by the campaign. The team abandoned plans for the President to speak to an "overflow" area outside the arena in Tulsa where only a couple dozen people were standing near the outdoor stage less than two hours before the rally.

As soon as he came on stage, Trump suggested that protesters had kept the crowds away from his rally. He called attendees at the Tulsa arena "warriors," and said there were "some very bad people outside," although CNN reporters on the ground saw no evidence of that interference.

A rally amid controversy

Though many medical experts, including top health officials within his administration, have warned against large gatherings at a time when coronavirus cases are rising in Oklahoma, Trump held Saturday's event at the indoor Bank of Oklahoma Center arena, creating the potential for what medical professionals refer to as a "super spreader" event.

Few rallygoers wore masks in the arena and many took seats that were right next to one another, and six Trump campaign advance staffers on the ground in Tulsa tested positive for the virus before the event took place.

Trump initially was scheduled to hold the rally on Friday, which would have fallen on Juneteenth, the day commemorating the end of slavery in the United States. That decision angered many progressive leaders and protesters who have been in the streets demonstrating against racism in the weeks since Floyd was killed.

The decision was fraught because of Tulsa's history as the site of one of the worst racially-motivated massacres in US history in 1921 when a White mob attacked Black residents and business owners in the Tulsa neighborhood known as Greenwood.

The President changed the rally date to Saturday in what he described as a gesture of respect to the observance of Juneteenth, but he has continued to antagonize protesters. On Friday, he warned in a tweet that protesters could be roughly handled.

"Any protesters, anarchists, agitators, looters or lowlifes who are going to Oklahoma please understand, you will not be treated like you have been in New York, Seattle, or Minneapolis. It will be a much different scene!" he tweeted.

The quick trip to Tulsa was a welcome respite for Trump from the controversy over yet another firing that looks like it's meant to protect him -- this time of a powerful prosecutor investigating his associates.

This weekend, the Trump administration was engulfed in a new controversy after Attorney General William Barr announced that Geoffrey Berman, the US attorney for the Southern District of New York, was stepping down. Berman said in a statement Friday night that he had no intention of leaving his office. That led Barr to write a letter to Berman stating that he had asked the President to remove him, "and he has now done so," Barr wrote.

As he departed from the White House Saturday for Oklahoma, Trump said he is "not involved" in the attempted firing of Berman, and that the decision was up to Barr. Berman later announced he is leaving his post.

Earlier in the day, the administration suffered a blow when a federal judge denied its attempts to block the upcoming publication of a book by former national security adviser John Bolton.

Trump spent much of Saturday upset because he believes the coverage of Berman's firing and the campaign staffers testing positive for coronavirus overshadowed his return to the campaign trail, one person familiar with the matter told CNN.

A public health gamble

The Trump campaign gambled by holding a big rally when Tulsa County reported a new record of daily coronavirus cases on Saturday -- the fifth record-setting day this week.

Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale was in the arena ahead of the rally wearing a mask, but Trump's son Eric Trump and many other GOP officials were not wearing masks. Oklahoma Sen. James Lankford wore a mask in the crowd, but his colleague, Sen. Jim Inhofe, whose age puts him in a high risk category, did not.

The President, who has never worn a mask in front of the media, told The Wall Street Journal earlier this week that he was comfortable with his supporters wearing masks.

"They can wear them or not," he told the newspaper. "I want them to be happy."

Campaign aides are tested before events, per the Trump campaign's safety protocols. And the campaign said it took extra steps to keep rallygoers safe, like temperature checks and handing out masks and hand sanitizer.

But Dr. Rochelle Walensky, chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases at Massachusetts General Hospital, told CNN's Ana Cabrera on "Newsroom" Saturday ahead of the rally that the set-up was "a confluence of conditions that lead to thriving of the virus."

"People are inside; they're close to one another; they're (not) wearing masks; they're yelling. This is exactly the condition in which the virus can really spread quickly from one to another, that leads to super-spreader events."

This story has been updated with comments from Sunday news shows.

CNN's Donald Judd, Martin Savidge, Kevin Liptak, Kaitlan Collins, Ryan Nobles, Jason Hoffman and Dan Merica contributed to this report.

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