President Donald Trump and numerous guest speakers praised the young audience of his third election-year visit to Arizona for supporting him and not backing down to what he said is conservative censorship on college campuses.
Trump discussed mail-in ballots, Black Lives Matter protests and his Democratic opponents to a crowd of roughly 3,000 people at Dream City Church during a rally in Phoenix Tuesday, as positive cases of COVID-19 broke state records over the weekend.
The event was organized by Students for Trump, an American youth group founded in 2015 to elect Donald Trump. The chairman of the group, Charlie Kirk, is also the CEO of Turning Point USA, a Phoenix-based nonprofit with a mission to educate students on traditionally conservative ideals.
The event centered around young people, allowing Trump to address conservative free speech restriction on college campuses, a problem he said was widespread. However, the event featured no Arizona student speakers.
"You're on the front lines of a tremendous intellectual struggle for the future of our country," Trump said.
Republican club leaders said they had different experiences with conservative censorship at ASU, but Trump still bowed at the efforts of the conservative student leaders.
An analysis of a free speech tracker developed by student researchers at Georgetown University found that in 90 incidents across the country, about two-thirds of speech suppression incidents, happened on college campuses. The report found that most conservative speakers who visited campuses were met with protesters, but incidents where students host their own dialogues had no public documentation of suppression.
Arizona is setting itself up to be a battleground state as both Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden have called the state one of their main targets and a key state in winning the 2020 election.
The state also has a competitive Senate race with Democrat Mark Kelly polling double digits above incumbent Sen. Martha McSally. The same poll found Biden to be polling 4% above Trump.
With the state's 11 electoral votes up for grabs, Joe Pitts, president of ASU College Republicans and a sophomore studying business law, said he was excited and motivated by the number of young people who were willing to support Trump.
Even though no Arizona students decried their experience with conservatism at the event, Pitts said the stories of student speakers were still relevant. Speakers condemned "cancel culture," protests around the nation and campus censorship, mimicking Trump's tone of painting Democrats as politically weak.
"What was important about their stories and what was relevant about them is that we make sure that the free marketplace of ideas is upheld," Pitts said. "It gets frustrating when those calling for conversation aren't willing to have a conversation. But that being said, I would say that's the exception, not the norm."
Judah Waxelbaum, chairman of the Arizona Federation of College Republicans and a senior studying political science, said during his freshman year, ASU College Republicans struggled to reserve space to table at events more than once.
"To say that censorship doesn't take place is inaccurate," Waxelbaum said.
Few masks and little social distancing seen as COVID-19 cases surge
Of his 90-minute speech, Trump only spent about 10 minutes talking about the new coronavirus. Trump pointed to China as the home of the virus and repeated his now-common racist phrase "Kung flu," which drew praise from the crowd.
He reiterated that if testing continues, there will be more cases and China, among some of Trump's other opponents and critics "will use it to make us look bad," he said.
However, the positive testing rate has grown exponentially with a steady increase in the need for ICU bed space. Arizona's positive testing rate was about 5% in May, increasing to 20% in June and now stands around 10%.
Last week, Gov. Doug Ducey said it was up to cities and municipalities to mandate masks. Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego said the city would not hand out citations to people not wearing masks but rather use the mandate to "educate the public on the virus and its transmission."
Only a handful of attendees were seen wearing masks as they waited to enter the venue and once they were seated inside.
Dream City Church said they were not able to check temperatures at the entrance, but opened another tier of seating to encourage social distancing.
Pitts said the president's allowance of states to cater to their individual needs, case numbers and hospital capacity was the right move. Ducey recognized an increase in cases over the past week and Pitts said the response before the increase was appropriate in continuing "to ensure that we save as many lives as possible and to make sure that we uphold public health."
ProPublica, a nonprofit investigative news organization, reported that Arizona meets none of the CDC guidelines for reopening, aside from the ability to test, and even that system is not perfect. The Arizona Republic reported citizens in Maryvale, Arizona waited for more than eight hours for a free test.
Prior to the event, Dream City Church staff posted a video claiming they had installed an air conditioning system, "Clean Air EXP," that would kill 99% of the new coronavirus. A statement released Tuesday showed the data used to make such conclusions might not be applicable to a venue of the megachurch's size.
Attendees were asked to sign a waiver during registration, acknowledging the inherent risk of COVID-19 exposure. The waiver prohibits any attendee from holding Turning Point, Dream City Church and others liable if someone contracts the virus.
Biden, the presumptive Democrat presidential nominee, said in a press release Tuesday the visit to Arizona was "reckless" and attacked the Trump administration's handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.
"Make no mistake: this visit is a distraction," Biden said, noting rising case numbers in the state.
As of June 24, the Arizona Department of Health Services reported 59,974 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 1,463 deaths across all 15 counties. Arizona reported the highest number of cases in one day Tuesday, adding 3,591 confirmed numbers to the state's total.
"Instead of doing the hard work needed to solve the public health and economic crises facing America, Donald Trump remains focused on his expensive, ineffective and wasteful 'wall,'" Biden said in the statement.
Biden has not visited Arizona for a campaign event in 2020 — his in-person rallies have come to a halt because of COVID-19, but his campaign hired to Arizonans for two senior staff positions earlier this month.
Trump weary of mail-in ballots, promises polls are safe for November
With COVID-19, many states delayed primaries this spring and are expanding mail-in ballot efforts for November.
Trump expressed his concern about the integrity of the election if mail-in ballots were used, saying anyone could use the ballot and they could be stolen before delivery. President Trump has voted by mail in the past and there is little to no evidence of stolen ballots and a mail-in process swaying the vote to one particular party.
"What we need to make sure of right now, in the middle of a pandemic and when we're going through riots and the chaos of 2020, is that we are making moves that are deliberate," Pitts said, explaining he has used a mail-in ballot and isn't sure what the process has to do with assisting candidates of particular parties.
Nearly 60% of Maricopa County voters used an early paper voting method in the 2016 general election, according to the County Recorder's office.
President Trump has said it will be safe to vote in-person in November but health experts say it won't be. Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has long predicted a second surge in positive COVID-19 cases in the fall and winter months and said there was no way to guarantee the U.S. could host an election "the standard way."
Trump talks statue removal, police brutality
Trump dismissed nationwide calls to defund and abolish the police after the killing of George Floyd and other Black Americans, saying that the mere idea of abolishing or defunding the police by Democrats would secure his reelection.
"(Democrats) always put their ideology before your safety. It's crazy what's going on," Trump said. "What are they going to defund and abolish? I thought it was going to be something. They said the police. I said 'Oh great, I just won the election, that's great!'"
In addition, Trump said the removal of confederate monuments and statues honoring other historical figures was an action that attempted to abolish heritage and forget history.
"I understand that they should not be publicly honored, but we should not pretend that they didn't exist," Waxelbaum said, suggesting removed statues be installed in museums for educational purposes.
Border wall, border security discussion in Yuma
Before coming to Phoenix, President Trump visited the border wall and signed a plaque commemorating the 200th mile of its construction near Yuma.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection released a report Friday that said roughly $15 billion had been budgeted for almost 740 miles of construction since Trump's inauguration.
Construction of the wall thus far has been predominantly replacing the barriers put in place. Cronkite News reported that almost all 216 miles built have been reinforcements for sections of the wall that were built in 2006.
The wall is one of many 2016 campaign promises made by Trump and as the election grows closer, an unprecedented amount of funds are being directed toward its construction. Supporters say the money has been well spent while critics say the money could be put elsewhere to address the country's COVID-19 response.
"I do think we need leadership that recognizes that in being an empathetic leader, you also have to acknowledge that there is a clear necessity to ensure our border is secure," Pitts said.
Trump's administration has not announced specifics on their plan to put an end to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program after the U.S. Supreme Court said Trump did not give enough reasoning to put and end to the protections.
"Good things are happening with DACA, we'll work it out," Trump said to reporters in Yuma.
Protesters call attention to Black Lives Matter
While the packed church of roughly 3,000 cheered on Trump and his supporters indoors, hundreds of protesters gathered outside, enduring temperatures over 100 degrees.
Protesters chanted “Black lives matter” and called for police reform from the Free Speech Zone, which was monitored by police, and became contentious around 3:15 p.m., according to The Arizona Republic.
The Phoenix police department declared the protest outside an unlawful assembly around 4:45 p.m. and shot flash bangs and pepper balls into crowds that lined the sidewalks.
Kiersten Moss contributed to the reporting of this article.
Piper Hansen is the digital editor-in-chief at The State Press, overseeing digital content from six departments. Joining SP in Spring 2020, she has extensively covered student government, housing and COVID-19. She has previously covered state politics for the Arizona Republic and the Arizona Capitol Times.