The rally was a story of worst practices in a pandemic, with Duluth as the collateral damage. Before Trump’s hospitalization and wall-to-wall coverage of his evolving condition, it was in Duluth that the recklessness of his campaign fell plainly into view — from his scoffing at mask-wearing to his insistence on assembling large crowds.
By the weekend, local public health officials were warning rally attendees about their risk of exposure, and prominent Republicans in the state were in quarantine. Emily Larson, the city’s Democratic mayor, asked anyone who attended the rally to “please get tested, self isolate.”
“Contact tracing President Trump in Minnesota: Who hung out with him for how long?” blared a headline in the St. Paul Pioneer Press. The Duluth News Tribune’s above-the-fold front page read simply, “[Rep. Pete] Stauber traveled with Trump.” No further context was necessary.
Photographs of the Duluth rally appeared on social media with red circles drawn around people standing closest to the lectern — and to Trump. Stauber and two other Republican congressmen who traveled with Trump on Air Force One were pilloried for returning to the state on a Delta Airlines flight on Friday night — apparently flouting airline rules.
The House members’ “stupidity and disregard for the well-being of their fellow passengers is staggering,” Ken Martin, chairman of Minnesota’s Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, said in a prepared statement.
Gary Anderson, the Democratic president of the Duluth City Council, said Sunday that Trump “took risks with the health of our community, clearly, and I think that’s how our community is worse off in the most direct way.”
Minnesota, a state Trump lost by fewer than 45,000 votes four years ago, wasn’t supposed to end like this for Trump. It was supposed to be where he stunned all the naysayers this year. Appearing at a rally in Duluth in 2018 to campaign for Stauber, Trump pinched his thumb and forefinger together and told the crowd he’d come “this close” to winning the state, something no Republican has done since Richard Nixon in 1972. One more visit, “one more speech,” he said, and he would have. In 2020, Trump said, “It’s going to be really easy I think.”
Duluth is critical to Trump’s ambitions. Though the city itself is a progressive enclave on the tip of Lake Superior, its media market gives Trump a port of entry to the state’s more conservative Iron Range, a blue-collar mining region that, while ancestrally Democratic, has been trending Republican in recent years.
Trump carried the congressional district surrounding Duluth by 15 percentage points in 2016, and he will need to juice turnout there this year to compensate for losses in the Democratic-heavy Twin Cities and their suburbs. In a year marked by little campaign travel, Trump has lavished attention on Northern Minnesota, dispatching family members to Duluth and appearing himself in Bemidji, Minn., in mid-September. Several mayors from the area publicly endorsed him.
One them, Larry Cuffe Jr., a former Democrat and the mayor of small town Virginia, recalled Sunday that Trump’s campaign provided hand sanitizer and distributed masks at the rally in Duluth last week. Cuffe and the people he was with were all wearing masks, he said, and he wasn’t worried about contracting the virus there.
What’s more, Trump looked good to him. Trump’s speech, Cuffe said, “was even more poignant and more to the point” than he had seen at previous events.
“I didn’t see anything that would make it look like he wasn’t at the top of his game,” Cuffe said.
In fact, Trump appeared to be in his element. One day after a chaotic and ineffectual debate, Trump boasted about his performance and derided Joe Biden. He mocked Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), a former refugee and Somali-American from the Twin Cities area, and warned Biden would “turn Minnesota into a refugee camp.” (Biden has no such plans.)
He mused about serving “16 more years” as president.
But even as Trump spoke, there were signs that not all was well with his campaign. As in other states, Trump is underperforming his 2016 levels in Minnesota with his base demographic of white voters. The coronavirus, a persistent drag on his public approval rating — and the issue that will now dominate the campaign’s closing weeks — was on an upswing in Northeastern Minnesota when Trump arrived.
Trump spoke for only about 45 minutes, unusually brief for him. “It’s freezing out here,” he said.
The rest of Duluth was left to absorb the fallout.
Following the rally, the Minnesota Department of Health said “community transmission of COVID-19 was high in St. Louis County prior to this week’s rally, and people attending the rally may have been infectious without realizing it.”
Outside Trump’s rally, a Trump supporter in a plaid shirt and gray hair was filmed attacking a photojournalist. After Larson called Trump a “white supremacist,” Trump supporters took to their cars and trucks, parading down the street by her home. Residents unaccustomed to political mischief reported having lawn signs stolen for the first time in their lives.
“I think that we’re living in a political low point, where people feel empowered to behave in ways that we wouldn’t have just four years ago or six years ago or even 20 years ago,” said Jeff Anderson, a former Duluth councilman and aide to former Rep. Rick Nolan (D-Minn.).
Describing a political environment antithetical to Minnesota’s reputation for civility, he said, “I think there’s just been this permission that’s been given to make people feel more comfortable behaving in inappropriate [ways].”
Trump’s medical team said Sunday that Trump could be discharged from Walter Reed medical center as early as Monday. And it’s possible that his rally in Duluth won’t be his last.
But even a brief break will be damaging. Running behind Biden in both national and swing state polls, large rallies are a mainstay of Trump’s campaign, critical to generating media and identifying supporters who aren’t yet registered to vote. In a nod to their significance, Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel said after the Duluth rally — and before announcing her own positive test for Covid-19 — that 60 percent of rally attendees in Duluth were not Republican and, more important, more than 17 percent did not vote in 2016.
Tim Murtaugh, a spokesman for Trump’s re-election effort, said of the prospect of Trump returning to in-person events that “we’ll leave that to the president’s medical team.”
But he was not apologizing for holding the rally in Duluth. Noting temperature checks and other safety precautions taken there, he said that “if people can protest in the streets by the thousands, then they can gather peacefully under the First Amendment to hear from the president of the United States.”
Nancy Cook contributed to this report.