WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump has had nearly four years in office to sell his performance to the American people. So far, polls suggest he has yet to make the sale: A majority of Americans disapprove of the job he's done, and he has consistently trailed former Vice President Joe Biden in general election surveys this year.
So what can he say on the final night of the Republican National Convention to change those attitudes and convince Americans he deserves four more years in office? Republican strategists say they are looking for him to give a vision of what he would do in a second term — an area he has struggled to define — and how that would contrast with a Biden presidency.
Whatever message Trump delivers on the final night of the gathering, he will be competing for attention with a Category 4 hurricane that made landfall Thursday morning.
Here’s what to watch for on the RNC's fourth and final night:
How much 'American carnage' will the night feature?
While speakers on Night One of the convention portrayed a dark and disturbing future under a Biden presidency, on the following two nights Republicans focused more on trying to boost the mood of the country with uplifting stories and an alternate version of history in which Trump has solved the coronavirus, extricated America from endless wars and been a champion for immigrants.
Earlier, aides said to look for Trump to take a similar tone in his remarks. White House chief of staff Mark Meadows said the speech would be “comprehensive and straightforward.”
“I think it's safe to say that he will be trumpeting his accomplishments over the first four years of the administration,” Trump campaign communications director Tim Murtaugh said Tuesday on a call with reporters. “He will definitely talk about the economy, the greatness of the economy before it was interrupted by the global pandemic.”
But the president has rarely let a speaking opportunity pass him by this election season without heading down a path of doom and gloom on the question of what will happen if he doesn’t win a second term, predicting everything from widespread voter fraud to violet mobs burning cities.
Excerpts of the speech released early show Trump plans a blistering attack against Biden.
“We have spent the last four years reversing the damage Joe Biden inflicted over the last 47 years," Trump is expected to say. "At the Democrat convention, you barely heard a word about their agenda. But that's not because they don't have one. It's because their agenda is the most extreme set of proposals ever put forward by a major party nominee."
Trump will be making his remarks hours after Hurricane Laura struck Louisiana, the strongest hurricane to hit the state in more than a century.
Hurricanes have caused Republicans to upend their convention plans in the past, but so far Trump has no plans to shift course. In 2012, the Republican National Committee cut its Tampa convention short due to the disruption caused by Hurricane Isaac. In 2008, Republicans scaled back their convention because of Hurricane Gustav, and President George W. Bush canceled his plans to attend.
As of Thursday afternoon, campaign officials said Trump would deliver his remarks as planned, even given the risk of looking out-of-touch making a campaign speech, expected to end with celebratory fireworks, while large sections of the country are digging out from the storm's wreckage.
Murtaugh told reporters Thursday that the president is expected to address the storm in his remarks.
Long before he starts speaking, Trump’s speech created a controversy of its own.
In a move unprecedented in modern times, he will be making his remarks from the White House grounds, using a taxpayer-funded building for a purely political event, something he already did repeatedly in taped segments throughout the convention.
He’ll also have a crowd of about 1,000 people on the White House South Lawn watching at a time when Americans are being told to avoid large gatherings — elsewhere in D.C., events drawing more than 50 people remain prohibited — adding to a narrative throughout the convention that the coronavirus is largely a thing of the past.
But even with a crowd and a stage, it will still be a strikingly different image from the typical convention acceptance speech. There won’t be the tens of thousands of cheering fans, and of course, no balloon drop.
Instead, what is supposed to be one of the most significant moments in Trump’s re-election bid may not feel that different from any other campaign speech he has given over the past few months.
How long can the message hold?
Whatever message Trump does deliver, its time in voters’ psyche could be quickly overtaken by whatever he says in the days after.
The president has been his own worst enemy when it comes to messaging, creating self-inflicted crises when Teleprompter Trump takes on Twitter Trump.
Trump's speech will also be battling for public attention with both the storm and the protests in Wisconsin following the police shooting of Jacob Blake, a Black man who was shot in the back.
Trump plans to hit the campaign trail Friday with a scaled-down rally in New Hampshire.
Other storms beyond the White House gates
While the scene on the White House grounds over the past few days has looked like the setup for a summer music festival, outside the White House a tall black metal fence was being erected this week around an extended perimeter. It appeared to be the same style fencing used during the Black Lives Matter protests in D.C. last month.
Anti-Trump protests were expected Thursday night, ahead of another, long-planned demonstration at the Lincoln Memorial making the 57th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech.
The Secret Service said the fencing, which would enclose Lafayette Square, was being erected in “an effort to maintain the necessary security measures and ensure public safety for scheduled events at the White House on Thursday, August 27.”
An event in support of Trump is also planned Thursday before his remarks, according to the Maryland GOP, which wrote on Facebook that “at the request of the president’s campaign and the RNC” the party had obtained permits for it.