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ROCHESTER – President Donald Trump brought his campaign to Minnesota on Friday with a sharp rebuke for Gov. Tim Walz and other DFL leaders who he said had forced him to pare back his rally in Rochester to comply with the state’s 250-person limit on public gatherings during the COVID-19 emergency.

The president abided by the restrictions, in a departure from his previous rallies in Minnesota. But he launched into an attack on the state’s handling of both his event and the looting and arson in the Twin Cities that followed the police killing of George Floyd in May, an event that has reshaped the 2020 election amid a national debate of race and policing.

“We’ve been given a very hard time by your so-called leaders,” Trump told supporters at the Rochester International Airport, where he stopped on a swing through several key Midwestern battleground states. “But they’re not very good leaders, as you found out during the riots.”

A Walz spokesman said after the speech that the governor “thanks President Trump for finally following public health guidance at a campaign rally.”

Trump, recoiling at an agreement that forced the campaign to limit the number of supporters who could greet him at the airport, said at least 25,000 people had wanted to attend his speech. He provided no evidence for that claim, other than pointing to the large throngs of people and traffic outside the airport gates.

Trump’s tone was more subdued than past rallies, but he still took aim at Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison for enforcing the crowd restrictions, as well as Democratic challenger Joe Biden, who leads in all polls of Minnesota voters heading into the final stretch of the campaign.

“Keith Ellison and Joe Biden want to imprison you in your homes while letting anarchists, agitators and vandals roam free as they try to destroy your cities and states,” Trump said.

Trump supporters who had gathered at the airport for hours ahead of his arrival on Air Force One also slammed the enforcement of state crowd restrictions, which the Trump campaign called “speech-stifling dictates.”

After drawing thousands at previous rallies in Bemidji and Duluth in defiance of the state’s limit on public gatherings, the Trump campaign agreed Thursday to limit entry to the Rochester rally. The state traced four COVID cases to Trump’s rally in Duluth and 16 cases to the event in Bemidji, where two people were later hospitalized with the virus. Another four cases were traced to counterprotests.

The Rochester event, coming the same day Biden was holding a COVID-compliant rally in St. Paul, looked very different from other Trump rallies. A scaled-down group, some wearing masks, sat in seats 6 feet apart.

But outside the event space a more boisterous crowd cheered, waved flags and signs and bought Trump merchandise. On his way into the main stage, Trump made a pit stop to greet a group that could not get into the event.

The Trump campaign’s announcement of the limited access followed a day of confusion over the location and size of the gathering.

It was initially planned for the airport, then shifted to McNeilus Steel, a private company in Dodge Center, before moving back to the airport. State officials asked the Republican National Committee (RNC) and Trump campaign for COVID-19 preparedness plans Thursday.

The RNC sent Rochester city officials a plan Friday, which was required as part of their venue rental agreement with airport authorities. The document showed they would pay $16,000 for the space and abide by Walz’s executive orders.

Trump supporters vented their frustration. Jamie Scherdin, a psychology student at Winona State who was wearing a “Women for Trump” hat, said protests throughout the summer had larger crowds, adding, “It’s just to try to silence the Republicans.”

Connie Anderson of Rochester did not make the 250-person cutoff but showed up along with hundreds of others who gathered outside the airport to show their support. She said the state needs to remove virus restrictions and believes businesses will follow health guidelines without mandates.

DFL leaders denied any political motives for the restrictions. Ellison noted that the state had just set its single-day record for COVID-19 infections.

“COVID-19 is not a political statement, it is a deadly virus and the cause of a global pandemic. ... For this reason, Governor Walz and I jointly encouraged all campaigns and all Minnesotans to express their political views safely during the election season,” Ellison said in a statement.

Jessie Van Berkel • 651-925-5044