Despite GOP promise of 'full scale' convention, alterations are being considered

Planners say there's at least one certainty about this summer's convention: The president will deliver an acceptance speech.
Image: Donald Trump
President Donald Trump arrives for a "Keep America Great" campaign rally at Huntington Center in Toledo, Ohio, on Jan. 9, 2020.Saul Loeb / AFP via Getty Images

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By Carol E. Lee, Monica Alba, Kristen Welker and Elyse Perlmutter-Gumbiner

WASHINGTON — For President Donald Trump, the show must go on — even during a global pandemic.

While Americans across the country are canceling weddings, sporting events and music festivals, Trump has insisted to aides that the Republican National Convention — specifically his nationally televised prime-time address — go forward in August, according to five people familiar with the discussions.

So the president’s political advisers are actively discussing ways to scale down the four-day event in hopes it can safely proceed amid concerns about the coronavirus, these people said.

“There will be a convention,” one of them said. “You can bank on that.”

But the people involved in the planning said the GOP convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, will likely look drastically different from past political conventions.

One plan under consideration is to have only delegates and alternate delegates attend, and to space them out on the convention floor, two of the people said.

There were more than 2,400 delegates, and roughly 2,300 alternates, at the GOP convention in Cleveland in 2016. The event drew tens of thousands of people to the city.

Whatever the final decision on the 2020 GOP convention, the people familiar with the discussions said, there will be no images of raucous Trump supporters packed shoulder-to-shoulder in Charlotte’s main basketball arena, which can hold 20,000 people.

There also will be fewer of the typical parties and gatherings on the sidelines of the convention. And Trump is likely to accept his party’s nomination with a speech produced for a TV audience, not the people in the room — more like a presidential debate and with fewer shots of the crowd, the people familiar with the discussions said.

They said Trump’s keynote address is about the only feature of the convention that the president’s advisers can guarantee, according to three people involved in the talks. One person said first Lady Melania Trump is also expected to speak during the convention in some capacity.

Marcia Lee Kelly, the president and CEO of the 2020 GOP convention, said in a statement that Republicans “remain committed to planning a safe and successful” event.

“As we have done throughout our planning, we will ensure the convention prioritizes the health and safety of delegates, media, guests and community members,” Kelly said.

Another convention official said planners are coordinating with experts who develop health guidelines and protocols for major public events.

On Thursday, Kellyanne Conway, counselor to the president, said Trump’s convention speech will be like a highlights reel of his first term.

“He will talk about the progress report of the Trump administration,” Conway told reporters at the White House.

Trump’s political advisers have privately acknowledged that his handling of the coronavirus outbreak, and the economic downturn it has caused, will dominate the campaign and overshadow his record.

The visual of a pared back, socially distanced convention would underscore that point.

One advantage the president’s team believes it has is that the Democratic National Convention is scheduled to go first and Republicans can make adjustments after closely watching how that unfolds — particularly whether the number of days is scaled back, people familiar with the discussions said.

Democrats pushed back their convention from mid-July, and it is now scheduled to take place Aug. 17 to Aug. 20 in Milwaukee. The chairman of the Democratic National Committee, Tom Perez, has said that Democrat are weighing contingencies and will not “put our public health heads in the sand.”

Former Vice President Joe Biden, the apparent Democratic nominee, has also indicated that it may be necessary to hold a “virtual convention” and not gather in person at all, although he has said he hopes that’s not the case. Democrats had 4,700 delegates at their 2016 convention in Philadelphia.

Republicans are scheduled to hold their convention Aug. 24 to Aug. 27.

People involved in planning the GOP convention said it’s too soon to know if it will be shortened, but the idea is under consideration and may depend on what the Democrats do.

The idea of only hosting delegates and alternates could be made easier because of an effort by Trump campaign officials to reduce any drama in the nominating process by working to tighten rules among state parties to ensure an orderly convention.

The goal is to create a “four-day television commercial to 300 million Americans and not an internal debate among a few thousand activists,” a campaign official said last year, promoting the effort as planning was getting underway.

About 40 states and territories submitted plans to the Republican National Committee with their updated guidelines, mostly to avoid any embarrassment, as was the case with a late delegate scramble in Cleveland in 2016. This time, senior officials said, the campaign has made a concerted effort to ensure a “predetermined outcome” and essentially plan for more of a coronation than a convention.

People involved in the planning discussions said they don’t intend to announce any changes to the convention for several more weeks, but the current public posture is that the event is going forward as expected.

One convention official said Republicans are coordinating with experts on how to “develop health guidelines and protocols for major public events.”

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Ronna McDaniel, the chairwoman of the Republican National Committee, said last week that the GOP is “full steam ahead planning a traditional convention.”

“We do not think at this time we have to switch to an alternative plan, but of course we will monitor circumstances and adjust accordingly,” McDaniel told reporters. “So currently, going forward, we're planning on a full-scale convention.”

Several hours after this story published, McDaniel issued a new statement, reiterating that plans for a traditional convention with tens of thousands of people “are full steam ahead,” despite public health experts like White House coronavirus task force coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx warning that social distancing will be a part of Americans’ lives throughout the summer.

“No one who is actually in a decision-making position has discussed alternate plans for our convention,” McDaniel said in her statement Thursday, while leaving open the possibility that will change in the weeks to come.

But local officials in Charlotte are skeptical the convention can take place in any traditional sense. “We don’t know when the pandemic will end," Charlotte Mayor Vi Lyles said recently. "My focus is on keeping our community well and safe. We will wait and see regarding the RNC.”

And last week retiring Sen. Lamar Alexander, Republican of Tennessee, said “we need the tests” and “lots of them” to have any chance of having an in-person convention.

North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, recently extended the state’s stay-at-home order to May 8 to curtail the spread of the coronavirus. It could be extended again if the trajectory of the outbreak in the state doesn’t move downward. Cooper has put forward a plan to slowly open the state in phases. It’s unclear how quickly the state will resume large gatherings like a presidential nominating convention.