Donald Trump really wanted to go big for his re-nominating convention.
Long before the coronavirus pandemic utterly destroyed his vision of a great American “revival” this summer—to be packed with his signature mega-rallies, economic renewal, and an extravagant 2020 Republican National Convention that would show up Joe Biden—the president was planning for yet another evening of being treated as a Republican rock-star while anointed the party standard-bearer.
Going back to last year, Trump was getting personally involved in pitching ideas and soliciting pitches for the four-day convention’s garish moments and granular details, according to three people who’ve discussed RNC planning with him. Since last year, he’s made specific recommendations for walk-on music, including Rolling Stones songs he typically doesn’t get to use. He’s riffed on possible guest stars, MAGA musical performances, and celebrity surrogates, lamenting how he couldn’t get every speaker he wanted during the 2016 convention. (That year, Trump had wanted Don King to speak on-stage, but top GOP officials, such as then-chairman Reince Priebus, ultimately convinced Trump not to feature the famous boxing promoter as a primetime guest due to the fact that King had been convicted of manslaughter for stomping someone to death.)
“It was supposed to be his big party,” one of the sources said. “Now, everyone’s just trying to make the best out of the situation.”
More recently, the president has had to come to terms with a dramatically pared-down convention for this week, one reined in by the realities of the deadly virus and thus lacking the in-person, massive crowds and Trumpian pageantry that he’d previously demanded.
Still, Trump remains hopeful that the convention could give him not just a polling bump, but also the visceral satisfaction he craves. After the humiliation and low turnout of his Tulsa rally in June, the president has been largely reduced to holding “telerallies” for his 2020 campaign, for which he merely calls in to a number to rant about whatever’s on his mind at the given hour. Trump has privately expressed annoyance that his telerallies do not generate any major media coverage and that they are a sorry excuse and replacement for his once-typical, rowdy stadium events, according to a source with direct knowledge of the matter.
But for his and the Republican Party’s four nights, the president has told those close to him that he is determined to beat Biden, the 2020 Democratic presidential nominee, in one way in particular: TV ratings. Over the past week, Trump has requested updates on the television ratings for evening broadcasts of the Democratic National Convention, and has insisted that his event will crush their “pathetic” ratings, a senior administration official told The Daily Beast.
Still, after four nights of Democrats offering up case after case against Trump’s time in office and failures during the global pandemic, the president now faces the tall order of trying to respond with both a strong defense and a comparably polished production.
What the final product will look like come Monday remains unclear, but Democrats had a head start on the president when it came to publicly conceding to the reality that the convention was going to be virtual, rather than held in the grandiose way that conventions have long been defined.
Going second gives the party a chance to rebut the Democrats argument, noted Russ Schriefer, the program director for the Republican National Conventions in 2004 and 2012. Limitations imposed by the pandemic have upended that traditional dynamic, however, as Democrats showed how a virtual convention could be held smoothly.
“The DNC has done such an extraordinary job, I think, in putting this thing together just from a production point of view that it's a pretty high bar,” Schriefer said. “And I have no idea what they're doing, but I'm sure they're thinking of, like, ‘How do we match this? How do we produce something that looks as good, that is as sort of entertaining and as tight as what the Democrats have been able to do this week?’”
An RNC official noted that the GOP convention will have “four nights of programing,” with “a mix of both virtual and in person.” The first day of the convention will include an in-person gathering in Charlotte where 336 delegates will formally nominate the ticket, according to the official.
The roster of RNC 2020 speakers currently stands as a mishmash of party honchos, kinder and gentler faces, and lib-owners and Trump superfans. Last week, The Daily Beast first reported that Alice Johnson, the criminal-justice reform advocate whose life sentence was commuted by Trump two years ago, was scheduled to address the GOP Convention. She’ll be joined on the list of confirmed speakers by right-wing faves such as Nicholas Sandmann, the high school graduate who’s sued several media outlets over coverage of his now-famous confrontation with a Native American activist on the National Mall last year. (The full list of speakers was released by the Trump campaign on Sunday.)
Both were put on a shortlist that was personally approved by President Trump. South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem is also expected to be among the speakers, with a spokesman telling The Daily Beast “her message will likely focus on the principles of the American founding and how this election is a referendum on that.” Noem has been one of the most outspoken governors in the country when it comes to opposing coronavirus restrictions.
The Maryland GOP and Black Republican Council, meanwhile, apparently hope to fete the president’s nomination with celebrations around the White House during the day on Tuesday and following his speech on the final night. A permit application submitted to the National Parks Service Thursday afternoon outlined plans for 10,000-strong “First Amendment” rallies at Lafayette Square, Freedom Plaza, and the sidewalk outside the presidential residence.
The Lafayette Square option would be particularly stinging given the force—including tear gas—that was used on protestors there to help stage Trump’s June 1 publicity stunt, when he strutted to St. John’s Episcopal Church amid unrest following George Floyd’s death. As of Friday, the National Parks Service has not yet blessed the Maryland GOP’s request.
Trump’s persistent ambition for a grand event forced the Republican National Convention on a tortured path in recent months that spanned different states and caused alarm from a variety of local officials.
The long-planned convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, was largely abandoned in early June as Trump roared back at the state’s Democratic governor for not allowing Republicans a full convention because of coronavirus concerns.
A shift to GOP-controlled Florida proved to be a failure. A little over a month before the convention was set to start, Trump pulled the mega-event from Jacksonville. The decision only came after the convention began to collapse under dueling concerns over public health during the pandemic and a statement from the area’s sheriff that warned “we are simply past the point of no return to execute the event with safety and security that is our obligation.”
Trump again tried to build up a sense of drama about where he might decide to hold his presidential nomination speech, tweeting on Aug. 10 that he would speak either from “The Great Battlefield of Gettysburg” or the White House.
The announcement caught officials in the Gettysburg area by surprise, and roughly two weeks before the event would have taken place they still hadn’t heard from the Republican president’s orbit about any planning for what would have been a major happening for the area during the public health crisis.
The president's tweet was the first anyone had heard of it, said Jason Martz, acting public affairs officer for Gettysburg National Military Park, noting that at that time, to his knowledge, no one at the park, the National Park Service, or the Department of the Interior “knew anything about any of it.”
“You found out when we did," Martz said
Trump finally settled on the south lawn of the White House for his nomination speech, even though questions had been raised about the ethics of using it for a purely political occasion. Politico reported Thursday that the event was also stoking legal concerns from Democrats in the House.
Among the critics of the president’s move was Richard Painter, the former chief White House ethics lawyer for President George W. Bush who ran an unsuccessful race for a U.S. Senate as a Democrat in 2018 and now considers himself an independent. But the move was just the latest in a litany of ethics concerns that worried him when it came to the Trump administration. The White House is an official building, he said, and “should not be used for a partisan political event.”
“I think this is symbolic, though, of this administration's attitude towards no respect for the boundaries between the political and the official,” Painter said.