Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images

President Trump's campaign claimed he was "obviously kidding" when, during last night's return to the campaign trail, he took a crowd-pleasing swipe by suggesting America should slow COVID-19 testing to slow case counts. But a pandemic doesn't make a great punchline.

Why it matters: Joe Biden pounced on the line, kicking off a head-to-head general election campaign after the three-month basement hiatus. The Biden campaign is likely to push that moment into ads.

Driving the news: In claiming that he has "done a phenomenal job" with the virus, Trump told a smaller-than-expected crowd in Tulsa at a "Great American Comeback" rally, after 109 days of shutdown:

  • "[T]esting is a double-edged sword. ... Here's the bad part. When you do testing to that extent, you're gonna find more people, you're gonna find more cases. So I said to my people: 'Slow the testing down, please.'"
  • The comment reflected Trump's obsession with top-line metrics like the Dow, but failed to acknowledge that widespread testing — enjoyed inside the White House — is the key to a robust reopening.

Biden tweeted: "Speed up the testing."

  • The Biden campaign followed up with a "Statement on Donald Trump Admitting He Ordered the Slowing of COVID-19 Testing," calling his remark "an outrageous moment that will be remembered long after tonight’s debacle."
President Trump, in reenacting his ramp trouble, said he had been wearing leather-bottomed shoes, which are "not good for ramps." Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images

Trump spoke for nearly two hours, including a nine-minute spoof of coverage from his West Point commencement address last weekend that showed him getting a hand navigating a ramp and using two hands to hoist a glass of water.

  • Trump mocked the coverage as suggesting he might have Parkinson's.
  • Trump pointed at the cameras in the back ("these fakers") and theatrically threw up his hands: "I'll let you know if there's something wrong, OK?"

The written parts of Trump's speech laid out his team's intended contrast to Biden — casting the former vice president as a 40-year creature of the Washington establishment who has failed to solve any of the problems he complains about.

  • But those lines were drowned out by Trump's unscripted grievances against his critics and the mainstream media.

Between the lines: Trump advisers told Axios they're bracing for presidential recriminations over the lackluster crowd — by the Tulsa Fire Department's count, 6,200 in an arena that holds 19,000.

  • News coverage of the rally, planned as a Trumpstock cultural phenomenon, focused on the crowd, which didn't provide the throngs the campaign had planned for an overflow area.
  • A massive "Mobile Stage" had been built for separate remarks by President Trump and Vice President Pence on their way in.
  • Those drop-bys were scrapped as turnout became evident.

The campaign tweeted that over 1 million tickets had been requested.

  • Sunday morning's front pages are sure to aggravate Trump ... N.Y. Times: "Trump's Plan For a Big Rally Sputters Badly" ... WashPost: "Hot words, empty seats" ... L.A. Times: "Trump's return to stump underwhelms."

Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale tweeted:

  • "Radical protestors, fueled by a week of apocalyptic media coverage, interfered with @realDonaldTrump supporters at the rally. They even blocked access to the metal detectors, preventing people from entering."
  • Reporters on the scene said they saw no such interference.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tweeted back at Parscale: "Actually you just got ROCKED by teens on TikTok who flooded the Trump campaign w/ fake ticket reservations."

  • CNN reported last week: "Mary Jo Laupp, a 51-year-old grandmother living in Fort Dodge, Iowa, appears to have helped lead the charge on TikTok ... when she posted a video encouraging people to go to Trump's website, register to attend the event — and then not show up."
  • Parscale fired back on Sunday: "Registering for a rally means you’ve RSVPed with a cell phone number and we constantly weed out bogus numbers, as we did with tens of thousands at the Tulsa rally, in calculating our possible attendee pool. These phony ticket requests never factor into our thinking."
Via Twitter

Tim Murtaugh, Trump 2020 communications director, said in a statement that the Tulsa rally "attracted over 4 million unique viewers across all of the campaign’s digital media channels."

  • "The live-streamed pre-rally shows drew an audience of more than 2.5 million unique viewers by themselves. These numbers don’t even include television viewers" for the rally, carried in full by Fox News and C-SPAN.
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