ROCHESTER, Minn. — When President Donald Trump campaigned in Rochester on Oct. 30, the City of Rochester and Mayor Kim Norton succeeded in getting the Trump campaign to do something no other hosting city had been able to do.
It got the campaign to fork over the rental fee upfront, which amounted to $16,000 for space at Rochester International Airport. And the campaign agreed to abide by the 250-person limit at the rally set by the state to help contain the spread of the coronavirus.
Up until then, no city in the United States had succeeded in getting the Trump campaign to practice or abide by social distancing guidelines. Trump rallies were noteworthy for their nonchalance toward COVID-19 rules. The jam-packed rallies often featured attendees standing shoulder-to-shoulder with little regard for the potential of spreading the highly infectious virus.
So when Trump, who is known to feed off the energy of rally crowds, touched down in Rochester, he was presented with a far different prospect: A far smaller crowd, seated in socially distanced chairs.
Norton, a former Democratic state legislator, said she has taken heat from some in the community for the stance the city took toward the Trump campaign. But the purpose was never to be partisan, as some have criticized her for, but to protect the city's health care workers and residents, she said.
Looking at the data from other rallies, it was clear to her that the Trump rally could be a breeding ground for more infections.
"The public health was the primary goal," Norton said.
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The Minnesota Reformer, an independent, online news organization, recently offered a behind-the-scenes look at the negotiations through an open records request of emails and text messages from Rochester officials.
They show that after the Trump campaign aborted a plan to hold the rally in Dodge Center to avoid Rochester's restrictions and returned to its original plan to hold the rally in Rochester, the city operated from a far stronger negotiating position. Rochester was the only game in town at that point.
"Do we have to accept the plane?" Norton asked John Reed, executive director of Rochester International Airport. "We do NOT need a covid outbreak OR unnecessary protests. Just asking. Not happy with this. Say no if we have a choice."
Asked if the city was looking to deny the president's plane the right to land at the Rochester airport, Norton said she was looking to understand what control the city had to enforce the law.
"We are in the middle of the pandemic. We have rising cases," she said. "I was just trying to get the lay of the land. If they say, 'We're coming and we're going to open the doors to everyone and we're not going to comply,' do we have to accept that, knowing that they're breaking the law? That's what I was trying to get at."
The Trump campaign and national GOP officials found the rules annoying and restrictive enough that they briefly switched the venue to McNeilus Steel, a Dodge County business. Plans were underway to hold a 25,000-person event there.
But the campaign and the Republican National Committee reversed course the day before the rally, after Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison asked the Dodge Center company for its COVID-19 plan. At that point, the campaign had no choice but to talk turkey with the city.
One priority was to secure payment from the Trump campaign upfront. Trump had held a rally in Duluth a week earlier. There, his campaign had failed to pay for the venue, Norton said, and flouted an agreement to limit attendance to 250 people. More than 2,500 people attended.
"I set a $16K amount that WILL be met before the 'campaign' set one foot on the airport," Reed told Norton in one text exchange, according to the Minnesota Reformer. "They have a history of not paying."
"I know! Get those funds!!!" Norton replied.
Reed told her later that the wire transfer had been sent. "It's the same as cash in our hands."
Forum News Service sought to interview Reed, but Tiana O'Connor, the airport's marketing and communications manager, referred all questions to the Rochester city attorney's office.
So far, Olmsted County health officials have not identified any COVID-19 cases associated with the Trump rally, said public information officer Kari Etrheim.
That's not to say infections didn't happen. Hundreds of Trump supporters waited for hours, many without masks, often in close proximity to each other, in a penned-off area near the runway. Hundreds more gathered in the overflow area in the distance. They included many from the Upper Midwest. Vehicle license plates at the airport showed people coming from Alaska, California and Texas.
If anybody did get the virus at the rally, they might have taken it with them.
Trump arrived in Rochester after a long day of campaigning in two other cities. He lacked much of the improvisational lightheartedness he brings to the rallies. He lashed out at Gov. Tim Walz and Ellison for "trying to shut down our rally" and predicted a middle-class apocalypse should he lose and Democrat Joe Biden win.
Four days later, Biden won the presidency.