It’s Trump’s call on what GOP con­ven­tion will look like

The News Tribune - - Nation & World - BY ZEKE MILLER As­so­ci­ated Press

Af­ter months of in­sist­ing that the Repub­li­can Na­tional Con­ven­tion go off as sched­uled de­spite the pan­demic, Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump is slowly com­ing to ac­cept that the late Au­gust event will not be the four-night in­fomer­cial for his re-elec­tion that he had an­tic­i­pated.

Af­ter a venue change, spik­ing coro­n­avirus cases and a sharp re­ces­sion, Trump aides and al­lies are in­creas­ingly ques­tion­ing whether it’s worth the trou­ble, and some are ad­vo­cat­ing that the con­ven­tion be scrapped al­to­gether. Con­ven­tions are meant to lay out a can­di­date’s vi­sion for the com­ing four years, not spark months of in­trigue over the health and safety of at­ten­dees, they have ar­gued.

Ul­ti­mately, the de­ci­sion on whether to move for­ward will be Trump’s alone.

Al­ready the 2020 event has seen a venue change – to more Trump-friendly ter­ri­tory in Jack­sonville, Florida, from Char­lotte, North Carolina – and it has been dras­ti­cally re­duced in scope. For tech­ni­cal rea­sons, the con­ven­tion will be un­able to for­mally adopt a new party plat­form. And what is nor­mally a high­light of the con­ven­tion – the roll call of the states to renom­i­nate the pres­i­dent – is set to be con­ducted through proxy votes in the orig­i­nal host city.

Still, Trump and his aides had pinned their hopes on cre­at­ing the pageantry of a for­mal ac­cep­tance speech in Jack­sonville, en­vi­sion­ing an arena packed with sup­port­ers, with­out face masks. Out­wardly, the White House and the RNC have said they’re full­steam ahead with the re­vised plan.

“We’re still mov­ing for­ward with Jack­sonville,” White House press sec­re­tary Kayleigh McE­nany said last week. “It’ll be a safe event. It will be a good event.”

But pri­vately, con­cerns are mount­ing, and plans are be­ing drawn up to fur­ther scale back the event or even shift it to en­tirely vir­tual. Of­fi­cials who weeks ago had looked for the con­ven­tion to be a cel­e­bra­tion of the na­tion’s van­quish­ing of the virus now see it as a po­tent sym­bol of the pan­demic’s per­sis­tence.

“There’s a lot of peo­ple that want to do it. They want to be en­thu­si­as­tic. But we can do that and we can do it safely,” Don­ald Trump Jr. said. He told

Fox News Chan­nel’s “Sun­day Morn­ing Fu­tures” that “it’s go­ing to be an awe­some event.”

Jack­sonville, whose mayor is a for­mer Florida Repub­li­can Party chair­man, is­sued a pub­lic mask or­der two weeks ago as virus cases in the area surged. That man­date is un­likely to be lifted be­fore the con­ven­tion. Also, Florida has lim­ited fa­cil­i­ties statewide to op­er­at­ing at 50% of ca­pac­ity.

Or­ga­niz­ers now plan to provide COVID-19 test­ing to all at­ten­dees daily, con­duct fre­quent tem­per­a­ture checks and of­fer face cov­er­ings. Even so, Trump aides and al­lies fear that the en­tire spec­ta­cle will be over­shad­owed by at­tendee con­cerns and al­ready height­ened me­dia scru­tiny on the po­ten­tial for the con­ven­tion to be a “su­per-spread­ing” event.

Key de­ci­sions about the event, in­clud­ing pre­cisely where or if Trump will ap­pear, need to be made in the com­ing days to al­low suf­fi­cient time for the build-out of the space.

In­creas­ingly, aides are push­ing Trump to move his ac­cep­tance speech out­doors to min­i­mize the risk of virus trans­mis­sion. But Trump has ex­pressed reser­va­tions about an out­door venue, be­liev­ing it would lack the same at­mo­sphere as a charged arena.

De­spite the eco­nomic down­turn, GOP of­fi­cials in­sist they will have the fi­nan­cial re­sources needed to hold the con­ven­tion. Vice Pres­i­dent Mike Pence flew to Florida on Satur­day to hold a fundraiser for the event.

“The con­ven­tion is still a month and a half away, so there is time to ad­just and make the most ap­pro­pri­ate de­ci­sions re­gard­ing venue op­tions and an ar­ray of health pre­cau­tions that will al­low us to have a safe and ex­cit­ing event for all,” RNC spokesman

Mike Reed said. “We will con­tinue to co­or­di­nate with lo­cal lead­er­ship in Jack­sonville and in Florida in the weeks ahead.”

The Trump team’s wor­ries were com­pounded af­ter the pres­i­dent’s em­bar­rass­ing re­turn to cam­paign ral­lies af­ter a three­month hia­tus caused by the virus. The empty seats at his rally in Tulsa, Ok­la­homa, brought about a shakeup to Trump’s cam­paign and re­newed fears that the pres­i­dent would not be able to re­turn to his sig­na­ture cam­paign events in their tra­di­tional form be­fore Elec­tion Day in Novem­ber.

A Satur­day rally in New Hamp­shire that was meant to be the pres­i­dent’s sec­ond at­tempt at a re­turn to cam­paign travel was called off on Fri­day, os­ten­si­bly be­cause of weather con­cerns from then-Trop­i­cal Storm Fay. But aides ac­knowl­edged they also were wor­ried about at­tract­ing enough of a crowd to fill the Portsmouth air­craft hangar.

The chal­lenge in Jack­sonville may be more daunt­ing. The ad­min­is­tra­tion’s top health of­fi­cials have de­murred when pressed on whether the con­ven­tion could be held safely. Many among the party’s lead­er­ship and the donors who attend con­ven­tions are older, putting them in a higher-risk cat­e­gory for the coro­n­avirus.

Al­ready a half-dozen Repub­li­can sen­a­tors have in­di­cated they won’t attend the con­ven­tion. Even Se­nate Ma­jor­ity Leader Mitch McCon­nell of Ken­tucky has ex­pressed reser­va­tions.

“I’m not go­ing to go, and I’m not go­ing to go be­cause of the virus sit­u­a­tion,” 86-year-old Iowa Sen. Chuck Grass­ley said on a con­fer­ence call with Iowa re­porters last week.

Asked whether he’d want to limit the gather­ing if the state’s coro­n­avirus cases con­tinue to rise, Trump replied that the de­ci­sion “re­ally de­pends on the tim­ing.”

“We’re al­ways look­ing at dif­fer­ent things,”

Trump said dur­ing an in­ter­view on Gray Tele­vi­sion’s “Full Court Press with Greta Van Sus­teren.”

“When we signed a few weeks ago, it looked good,” the pres­i­dent con­tin­ued. “And now, all of a sud­den, it’s spik­ing up a lit­tle bit. And that’s go­ing to go down.”

AP file

Can­di­date Don­ald Trump ad­dresses del­e­gates dur­ing the fi­nal ses­sion of the Repub­li­can Na­tional Con­ven­tion in Cleve­land in July 2016. This year’s GOP con­ven­tion could look very dif­fer­ent.

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