Pre-recorded speeches and a few paper streamers? Not on his watch.
President Donald Trump, a television producer at heart, is hoping for a convention next week that looks vastly different from the all-digital event Democrats have staged over the past days – including an emphasis on live programming and at least some type of audience who can respond to the multiple appearances he is planning.
Calling aides at all hours from Air Force One or the White House residence, Trump has conveyed last-minute ideas on venues or gimmicks and demanded progress reports on the speakers he wants during his nominating extravaganza, which he hopes will provide a boost to his poll numbers.
Early drafts of his nomination acceptance speech closely resemble two previous addresses that delved heavily in the divisive culture wars that Trump has aggressively stoked: his first convention speech in 2016, where he declared “I alone can fix” the country’s ailments, and his July 4 address at Mount Rushmore, which seized upon recent racial strife to hammer a “law and order” message.
Even amid a national pandemic that has severely limited Republicans’ ability to party, the convention ordered up by the President next week will still contain moments that are designed both to surprise viewers and trigger outrage from Trump’s opponents – both defining features of Trump’s political style.
Depending on how the election turns out in November – and how Republicans reshape themselves if the President loses – next week’s proceedings could reflect either the last gasp of that brand of politics or an illustration of the new GOP formed in his image.
Details in flux
Details for the week remain fluid and some of the central elements were still being worked out between the White House, Republican National Committee and convention planners. Trump’s aides were reaching out to potential participants, including a long slate of Americans whose personal stories they believe will resonate with voters.
That includes those who have benefited from some of the administration’s initiatives, like opportunity zones and school choice, and those who have experienced trauma or suffered in ways the President says he is trying to combat.
“I think probably the biggest thing is the untold stories that will be told next week,” White House chief of staff Mark Meadows told reporters aboard Air Force One on Tuesday as Trump returned from a visit to Arizona. “I think that will be the biggest surprises.”
Inside the White House, Trump’s senior adviser Jared Kushner has taken a lead role in taking his father-in-law’s ideas and demands and attempting to make them reality. He’s been joined in those efforts by senior adviser Hope Hicks and members of the campaign team, including GOP party chairwoman Ronna McDaniel. Though Kushner wasn’t initially scheduled to speak at the convention like the other prominent members of the family, it’s now under consideration, a source familiar with the planning told CNN.
Speechwriters for the President were drafting an address that counselor Kellyanne Conway said Wednesday would amount to a “progress report” of Trump’s first term.
“It’ll be an exciting week,” she told reporters at the White House. “Only the President can deliver that from here, only the first lady can be here delivering her address.”
Though the coronavirus pandemic will provide an unspoken subtext for the drastically altered convention, Trump advisers said they did not expect the health crisis to be a heavy focus of the proceedings, as it has during the Democrats’. Trump’s response to the crisis has been widely criticized.
What we know
After exhaustive deliberations over potential venues, the bulk of the convention will be centered in Washington, including on the White House lawn and at the Andrew W. Mellon Auditorium, situated around the block from Trump’s hotel (which Republicans said they expected to act as a social hub for the week and will likely benefit financially). Some aides have started referring to the Mellon Auditorium as the place where “Mnuchin got married,” meaning the wealthy treasury secretary who wedded the actress Louise Linton there in 2017.
In pre-pandemic times, the historic auditorium can fit up to 1,000 people. But because of Covid-19 restrictions, the president’s apparatus is weighing having an audience with limitations. “It will be under 100 people in the building,” a person familiar with the planning told CNN, adding it could be as few as 30 people including staff and production crews.
Trump is still planning to travel at some point next week to Charlotte, North Carolina, the original site selected by Republicans for their convention more than two years ago. Delegates were still planning to convene there to conduct the party’s formal business and hold meetings.
The fireworks display Trump ordered up for the National Mall following his acceptance speech is still in flux as of Thursday with planners await permitting approval by the National Park Service.
A roster that includes bit players in various Trump-era controversies – including the gun-toting couple from St. Louis and the Catholic high school student who sued major media outlets for defamation – is still coming together.
And speaking slots for Trump allies and members of Trump’s immediate family – including the first lady and the President’s adult children – are being assigned.
The White House itself appears set as a main backdrop. Massive theatrical scaffolding and rigging for lights began going up on the South Lawn this week, preventing the President from using his helicopter to fly to Joint Base Andrews for his trips out of town. Trump is expected to deliver his acceptance speech there on Thursday.
“It’s a place that makes me feel good, it makes the country feel good,” Trump told the New York Post in a recent interview.
Final touches are being made in the restoration of the White House Rose Garden, which is expected to be completed by next week in time for first lady Melania Trump to deliver her speech on Tuesday.
Vice President Mike Pence, who has recently scaled up his own campaign travel, will speak from Fort McHenry in Baltimore. The site, which Trump visited on Memorial Day, was the inspiration for the Star Spangled Banner. And Ivanka Trump is slated to introduce her father at the White House next Thursday.
A counter punch
With less time to plan their event after Trump abruptly canceled an in-person convention he had insisted upon for months, Republicans are now hurrying to realize his visions of an extravagant and distinctly Trumpian affair.
Watching hours of the Democrats’ convention this week, Trump has conveyed to aides what he thinks works well and what he doesn’t want to see replicated – particularly the taped speeches that some officials have delivered in lieu of live addresses.
The President has sharply criticized the taped segments, particularly the speech former first lady Michelle Obama delivered on Monday, because they seem dated and, he claims, lack energy. He noted Tuesday that Obama cited a coronavirus death figure that had increased by thousands since she recorded her speech early last week.
Trump does not particularly like watching himself on tape, either. Multiple sources have described the president as someone who grows impatient and frustrated while taping pre-recorded addresses. He prefers instead to feed off of an audience.
There will be a hybrid of taped and live programming during the earlier hours of the convention, but most of the primetime speeches will be done live, a person familiar with the planning told CNN.
In insisting almost everything happen live, however, Trump risks what some GOP convention planners fear could be technical issues or timing awkwardness that can’t be edited out – exactly the scenario that Democrats were seeking to avoid in pre-taping speeches such as the former first lady’s.
Whether live or taped, the convention as described by people familiar with its planning will capture a presidency and a candidacy built around divisive cultural battles, made-for-television flash and a moth-like attraction to controversy.
The list of speakers reflects Trump’s penchant for pushing buttons. Patricia and Mark McCloskey, the St. Louis homeowners who pointed guns at protesters earlier this summer, are scheduled to speak. So is Kentucky student Nick Sandmann, who was at the center of a viral video controversy during the March for Life rally in Washington last year and later sued major media organizations, including CNN.
Richard Grenell, the outspoken former intelligence chief and US ambassador to Germany; Nikki Haley, the onetime US ambassador to the United Nations; Andrew Pollack, the father of Parkland shooting victim Meadow Pollack; anti-abortion activist Abby Johnson; South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem and Pennsylvania congressional candidate Sean Parnell will also be among the speakers.
As will Alice Johnson, a former federal criminal whose life sentence was commuted by Trump at the urging of Kim Kardashian West.
A slate of lawmakers who have been supportive of Trump, including Sens. Joni Ernst and Tim Scott, will speak on Monday. The themes will be “land of opportunity,” “land of promise,” “land of heroes” and – for the night the President speaks – “land of greatness.”
Aides have pointed to Trump’s speech in July at Mount Rushmore as a model of the tone they are trying to set in Trump’s remarks, which they say will hit on familiar themes the President has been hammering in official and political events for the last month.
That dark speech delved heavily into the divisive culture wars that Trump has stoked this summer amid a national racial reckoning. In many ways it echoed his first convention speech in 2016, during which he intoned the words “law and order” four times.