President Donald Trump has hosted his first indoor rally in three months in front of a packed, mask-less crowd in Nevada, in open defiance of state regulations and his own administration’s pandemic health guidelines.
Eager to project a sense of normality, Mr Trump soaked up the raucous cheers inside a warehouse in Henderson, on the outskirts of Las Vegas.
Not since his humiliating rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma in June – which featured rows of empty seats and was blamed for a local spike in Covid-19 cases – has he gathered supporters indoors.
There was no early mention from the president that the pandemic had killed nearly 200,000 Americans and was still claiming 1,000 lives a day.
Few in the crowd wore masks, with one clear exception: those in the stands directly behind Mr Trump, whose images would end up on TV, were mandated to wear face coverings.
The rally in Tulsa, which was his first in three months after the coronavirus reached American shores, was a disaster for the campaign. One prominent Trump supporter at the rally, businessman and former presidential candidate Herman Cain, died of Covid-19 weeks later, though it was not clear if he contracted the virus in Tulsa.
Recognising that many supporters were uncomfortable gathering in a large group indoors, where the virus spreads more easily, the Trump campaign shifted to holding smaller, outdoor rallies, usually at aircraft hangers. But those rallies have grown in size in recent weeks, with little social distancing and few masks.
On Sunday, they returned indoors, in part as a nod to the Las Vegas-area heat. Temperature checks were given to all upon entrance at the industrial site in Henderson and while masks were encouraged, few wore them.
Nevada’s Democratic governor Steve Sisolak has limited in-person gatherings indoors and outdoors to 50 people since May, a recommendation based on White House reopening guidelines.
(Trump) didn’t have the guts to make tough choices ... he left that to governors and the states. Now he’s decided he doesn’t have to respect our State’s laws. As usual, he doesn’t believe the rules apply to himNevada governor Steve Sisolak
In a statement released just before the rally began, Mr Sisolak said Mr Trump was “taking reckless and selfish actions that are putting countless lives in danger here in Nevada”.
“To put it bluntly: he didn’t have the guts to make tough choices,” Mr Sisolak said of Mr Trump’s handling of the virus.
“He left that to governors and the states. Now he’s decided he doesn’t have to respect our State’s laws. As usual, he doesn’t believe the rules apply to him.”
The city of Henderson informed Xtreme Manufacturing on Sunday that the event as planned was in direct violation of the governor’s Covid-19 emergency directives and that penalties would follow. The Trump campaign pushed back against the restrictions.
“If you can join tens of thousands of people protesting in the streets, gamble in a casino, or burn down small businesses in riots, you can gather peacefully under the 1st Amendment to hear from the President of the United States,” campaign communications director Tim Murtaugh said.
To this point, the campaign has not been played out as a choice election between Mr Trump and his Democratic opponent, Joe Biden, but rather a referendum on the president’s handling of the coronavirus. By wide margins, Americans have disapproved of Mr Trump’s leadership, as the United States has suffered more deaths than any other nation.
Therefore, the president’s campaign believes it needs to change the subject and project the sense – despite evidence to the contrary – that the pandemic was winding down and that a vaccine was on the horizon.
Part of the plan involves creating images of normality, like the packed White House lawn for Mr Trump’s convention speech, though it was unclear if viewers were reassured or frightened.
The Nevada rally came the night before Mr Trump was due to travel to California to receive a briefing on the devastating wildfires racing through the region. He has largely been silent on the blazes that have claimed dozens of lives in Oregon and California.
Earlier on Sunday, Mr Trump sought further inroads with Latinos who could prove vital in closely contested states that could determine the White House race, promoting economic gains they made before the pandemic.
Though Mr Trump has made scores of inflammatory and derogatory comments about Latinos, his campaign is growing confident that he has won some support that could help in Florida, Arizona and Nevada.
Winning support from Latinos has been an uphill climb for Mr Trump, whose hard-line immigration policies and sometimes virulent depiction of immigrants have alienated many Hispanics.
In the first moments of his 2016 campaign, he declared that many Mexican immigrants were “rapists”.
He has drawn criticism for his tepid response to a hurricane that ravaged Puerto Rico, for his polices to separate children from families at Mexican border, and his efforts to dismantle an Obama-era program that allows young immigrants living in the country illegally who were brought here as children to remain in the US.
“They understand the situation at the southern border. They want people to come in, and so do I, but they want them to do it legally,” Mr Trump told a small group of supporters earlier on Sunday in Las Vegas. “While Joe Biden has failed, I have delivered for Latinos.”