President Trump won’t get the convention moment he originally hoped or planned for when he officially accepts the Republican nomination for president — but it may be one on which he can still capitalize.
The president will deliver his speech live from the White House after being forced to scrap plans to deliver the address to a large audience in Jacksonville, Fla., because of the coronavirus pandemic.
The convention, like its Democratic counterpart, will take on a completely different feel as a result of COVID-19, which has pushed the parties to go virtual and get creative to avoid large gatherings that could spread the virus.
Sources close to the White House acknowledge the difficulty of breaking through with a virtual convention, but officials are heading into the week hoping the convention will make a bigger splash than the Democratic National Convention.
Republicans argued that the Democratic gathering failed to excite voters and that its more elaborate production elements fell flat, making it at times feel like a Zoom call.
“It’s incredibly tough to do a virtual convention,” said one former White House official. “But I don’t think Republicans are going to make the same mistake that Democrats made, which is to try to be too cute by half.”
A senior campaign official predicted the Republican National Convention would be exciting and find interesting ways to sell the president's accomplishments over his first term.
Some Republican allies of Trump acknowledge that the inability to deliver the convention speech to a large crowd represents a setback for him, but they see the glory of the White House as the next best option for the convention address.
“I think he would have preferred Jacksonville or Charlotte, but I think the theme of the president is in charge and commander in chief, I think the White House provides the backdrop for that imagery,” said one former Trump campaign official.
The White House is expected to have some guests to witness Trump’s address in person, and White House chief of staff Mark Meadows suggested to reporters that there could be a crowd on the National Mall. The Republican National Committee has applied to conduct a fireworks display at the Washington Monument after Trump’s address Thursday evening.
Sources close to the White House expect Trump’s prime-time acceptance speech to have three objectives: present a contrast with Democratic nominee Joe Biden by painting him as a puppet of the “radical” left wing of the Democratic Party, tout his record on the economy and other issues, and present a vision for the future should he win a second term.
Republicans have lined up a slew of speakers under the theme “Honoring the Great American Story” with the hopes of driving momentum.
Those expected to speak include members of Congress such as Sen. Tim Scott (S.C.), the only sitting Black Republican senator, and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) as well as Nikki Haley, Trump’s former United Nations ambassador.
The virtual events will also feature appearances from Alice Johnson, a criminal justice reform advocate who was granted clemency by Trump; Covington Catholic High School graduate Nick Sandmann; the parents of Kayla Mueller, a humanitarian aid worker who was captured and killed by the Islamic State; and Mark and Patricia McCloskey, the couple who went viral after pointing guns at Black Lives Matter protesters.
The Republican National Convention nominating events will still take place in person in Charlotte, N.C., on Monday but will be dramatically scaled down to include only 336 delegates — six from each state and territory.
The events will be decidedly Trump-centric, with the GOP nominee playing an active role each of the four nights, according to a campaign official, culminating with Trump’s address from the White House grounds Thursday.
First lady Melania Trump also plans to deliver her own address from the White House on Tuesday, and Vice President Pence will deliver remarks accepting the vice presidential nomination Wednesday from Fort McHenry in Baltimore. The other speeches will be broadcast from the Andrew W. Mellon Auditorium, a federal building in Washington, D.C., as well as from satellite locations across the country.
Trump hasn’t held a large-scale campaign rally since June, but he has adjusted by using smaller events at the White House and elsewhere to telegraph his agenda and hammer Biden. Trump traveled to swing states over the week of the Democratic convention to offer a competing message, speaking to crowds of hundreds of supporters outdoors in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.
“Trump’s inability to hold giant, colorful rallies is going to hurt him down the stretch. Having to hold a virtual convention is just one example of this,” said Dan Eberhart, a prominent GOP donor.
“Trump is combating this by continuing to cross the country and make appearances,” Eberhart continued, arguing Trump was successfully drawing a contrast with Biden, who has been largely confined to his home in Delaware during the pandemic. “Ultimately, this will favor Trump.”
Trump’s use of the White House for his acceptance speech will itself be a historic moment, marking an unprecedented use of the federal grounds for partisan political activity that has triggered scrutiny for ethical reasons. It will mark the first time that a president has accepted a party’s nomination from the White House, serving as an example of how Trump has constantly pushed the boundaries and broken with practices of past presidents of both parties.
“It’s not that there’s a tall wall that separated that which is governance from that which is partisan or purely political in nature. But this strikes me as a break,” said William Howell, a political scientist and professor at the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy. “It’s not a surprise that this president is the one to do it. He is breaking all kinds of norms of democratic governance. This is yet another one.”
Trump enters the convention trailing Biden in polls nationally and in some battleground states, with a significant majority of voters disapproving of his response to the novel coronavirus, which has killed more than 170,000 in America. However, Republican sources argue that the Democratic convention failed to energize and engage voters and doubted that the frequent attacks leveled on Trump over his response to the coronavirus would have an impact.
“I don’t think it hurts him at all,” the former White House official said. “If they had a better-produced convention, maybe it would be more effective.”