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A Trump-free GOP national convention?

Former President Trump may be set for controversy at next month’s Republican National Convention — and not only because he reportedly described its host city of Milwaukee as “horrible” earlier this week.

The convention’s planners are making contingencies for the possibility that Trump will not be able to attend the event in person, according to an NBC News report.

Trump’s sentencing in his New York hush money trial is set for July 11, four days before the GOP convention opens and seven days before the former president is all but certain to be crowned as the nominee.

Trump could be sentenced to prison by Judge Juan Merchan. But many legal observers believe that a more likely scenario, given Trump is a first-time offender, is home confinement. In that situation, Trump would presumably speak to the convention virtually from Mar-a-Lago.

The topic is evidently a touchy one. The NBC report included a quote from a senior Trump adviser denying that there was any planning going on for “any option other” than the former president accepting the nomination in person in Milwaukee.

But the news organization also reported that, “In case of potential house arrest, the Republican National Committee is already setting up convention-themed staging at Mar-a-Lago, along with a massive screen at the Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee.”

Conventions have lost some of their salience and drama in recent years. But a situation in which Trump was prevented from accepting the nomination in person because of some form of criminal sentence would once again pitch the nation into an unprecedented situation.

For Democrats, it would present an obvious opportunity to underscore their case that the former president is manifestly unfit for high office. Eighty-five percent of Democrats approved of Trump’s conviction in the New York case, according to an Associated Press (AP)/NORC poll released earlier this week.

But a Trump-free Milwaukee convention could be equally energizing for the former president’s MAGA base who fervently believe he has been victimized. Only 15 percent of Republicans approved of the recent conviction, according to the same AP poll.

In the event that Trump could not attend the convention, “I’m sure he would capitalize on the fact that the ‘evil powers that be’ — the media, the court system, Democrats — have all conspired to keep him from claiming the nomination in person,” said Tobe Berkovitz, a professor emeritus at Boston University who specializes in political communications.

Berkovitz added that, in such a situation, Trump “could even make the argument that this is tampering with the electoral process; that Democrats have prevented the bona fide candidate of the other party from speaking at the convention itself and claiming the nomination.”

The issue of the convention adds an extra twist of drama as Trump awaits his fate at the hands of the judge. Merchan and his daughter Loren have both frequently been in Trump’s rhetorical crosshairs as the former president complains he has been treated unfairly.

Trump was convicted in late May of all 34 felony counts he faced regarding the falsification of business records. The case revolved around a $130,000 payment made to adult film star Stormy Daniels in the closing stretch of the 2016 election campaign. The money was intended to stop Daniels from going public with her story that she had sex with Trump at a celebrity golf tournament a decade previously.

Trump railed against the verdict, as expected. 

The short-term political effects of his conviction were mixed. The verdict unleashed a tsunami of fundraising donations, according to Trump’s campaign — amounting to about $70 million in 48 hours. On the other hand, some polls have shown a slight move in President Biden’s favor, so that a race in which Trump had a small lead has become basically tied.

Even some Republicans argue that it is just too hard to game out the political ramifications of a convention that Trump cannot attend.

Doug Heye, a former communications director of the Republican National Committee, said that “if Trump is not able to be there in person, I don’t know anybody is smart enough to tell you what impact that will have.” 

Heye added. “The people who will say, ‘It is great for our side!’ are the professional wrestling announcers of politics and — what do you know? — everything is always going to be amazing for their side.”

For the moment, the Trump campaign may be able to take some measure of relief from the fact that the controversy over his reported comments about Milwaukee is beginning to fade.

The report that Trump had called the city “horrible” during a closed-door meeting with GOP members of Congress on Thursday caused an instant furor.

The storm was given additional force because some Republicans present said Trump had been referring only to crime rates in the city, others said he had been talking about the city’s role in the 2020 election and still others denied he had made the remark at all.

It’s certainly possible that the comment could resonate in Wisconsin, which Biden won by roughly half a percentage point in 2020, and which is set to be a key battleground again this year.

But nationally, most people expect the story to fade.

“Would I have advised Trump to say it? No,” said Heye. “But there is very little that Donald Trump could say at this point that is going to shock people. If the Access Hollywood tape didn’t fit things, I don’t think ‘I don’t like Milwaukee’ is going to do it.”

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