Rochester Mayor Kim Norton said no. President Donald Trump listened.

Text messages show Norton succeeded in getting Trump campaign, national GOP officials to pay upfront, abide by health regulations

Thousands gathered outside of a Trump campaign rally at Rochester International Airport on Oct. 30. The event featured a strict limit of 250 people, leaving many outside who nonetheless showed up to support Trump. Photo by Ricardo Lopez/Minnesota Reformer

The reelection campaign of President Donald Trump bulldozed through state and local officials around the country who sought to limit the size of his rally crowds to prevent the spread of COVID-19. 

In Bemidji, for instance, Trump drew a crowd of at least 4,000 people. In Duluth, he drew more than 2,500. Minnesota health officials later traced at least 19 COVID-19 infections to both rallies.

But not in Rochester, where the nonpartisan mayor, Kim Norton, stuck to her guns and limited Trump to 250 people at the Rochester Airport, according to a review of text messages and other records obtained by the Reformer in a public information request. 

“Do we have to accept a 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.”

The scramble by local officials to seek signed assurances the campaign would follow COVID-19 health restrictions caused the Trump campaign to seek a different site for the rally. Trump and national GOP officials had briefly switched locations to McNeilus Steel, a private business in Dodge Center, but that plan fell through. 

Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison had asked the business for their COVID-19 preparedness plan. Eventually, the campaign and the Republican National Committee, which was also coordinating the event, backed out of the McNeilus Steel location and were back at square one. Except this time, Rochester officials had more leverage. 

The behind-the-scenes negotiations outline in detail how Norton and local officials were seemingly the only officials in the country to get Trump to abide by COVID-19 restrictions — as well receive payment beforehand. 

“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. “They have a history of not paying.”

Norton responded: “I know! Get those funds!!!!”

Later Reed followed up: “The wire transfer has been sent,” adding “It’s the same as cash in our hands.”

In a Reformer interview, Norton previously said partisan politics were not the driving force behind Rochester officials’ decision to hold the campaign accountable for enforcing crowd limit sizes. 

She said local officials were on the same page about protecting public health, presenting a unified front when dealing with Trump and national GOP officials. 

The city had good reason to be skeptical about whether the campaign would act in the interest of public health, or pay its bills. 

Public records reviewed by The Washington Post showed Duluth airport officials were dismayed to see thousands stream into the airport hanger for a Sep. 30 rally. The campaign also did not pay the $20,000 site rental fee upfront, and an airport spokesperson later told the Post that a nondisclosure agreement they had signed with the campaign prohibited them from saying if the fee had been paid or not.

Similarly, an event in Hibbing featuring Vice President Mike Pence again violated the state’s 250-person limit on outdoor gatherings, when nearly 700 people showed up for the campaign event despite the chilly temperature.

Norton, texts showed, drove a hard bargain.

“I want a contract signed, John,” she told Reed. “And cash the check.”

In the end, Trump arrived to see 250 socially distanced chairs, with thousands gathered outside the perimeter of the event. He spoke for 22 minutes after giving a flat speech that may as well have been before an audience of 12. 

“Your far-left Democrat Attorney General, Keith Ellison, and your Democrat governor tried to shut down our rally,” he said, saying he decided to hold the event anyway. “But I said, ‘No way, I will never abandon the people of Minnesota. I will come up. I will come up.’ ”

Four days later, Trump lost Minnesota by 233,000 votes.

Ricardo Lopez
Ricardo Lopez is the senior political reporter for the Reformer. Ricardo is not new to Minnesota politics, previously reporting on the Dayton administration and statehouse for The Star Tribune from 2014 to 2017, and the Republican National Convention in 2016. Previously, he was a staff writer at The Los Angeles Times covering the California economy. He's a Las Vegas native who has adopted Minnesota as his home state. In his spare time, he likes to run, cook and volunteer with Save-a-Bull, a Minneapolis dog rescue group.