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Republicans seek to sell kinder, gentler Trump on night two, but will it work?

First Read is your briefing from "Meet the Press" and the NBC Political Unit on the day's most important political stories and why they matter.
Image: First lady Melania Trump delivers her live address to the largely virtual 2020 Republican National Convention from the Rose Garden of the White House
First lady Melania Trump delivers her live address to the largely virtual 2020 Republican National Convention from the Rose Garden of the White House, Aug. 25, 2020.Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

WASHINGTON — On Monday night, it was (mostly) fire and brimstone. Last night at the GOP convention, there was more of an effort to soften President Trump’s image.

Trump oversaw a naturalization ceremony — to counter his policies and rhetoric towards immigrants.

He pardoned a Black man — to counter the perception that he’s a racist.

And his wife, First Lady Melania Trump, expressed sympathy with those killed by the coronavirus and talked about the racial unrest — to counter the reality that her husband has spent too little time on these subjects.

Call it the Donald J. Trump Image Restoration Project.

It’s unclear this effort will work, especially when the president takes center stage on Thursday and for the rest of the campaign.

But they’re trying.

And speaking of trying, the last two nights of the GOP convention have featured a notable group of prominent speakers who aren’t exactly a core part of the GOP base: Black men.

Hershel Walker. Tim Scott. Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron.

Convention planners didn’t make these choices haphazardly, and it shows us that Team Trump probably thinks two things are true — that Trump’s perceived racism is a significant drag with college-educated voters that the party has to address before the fall, and that depressing Biden’s margins with Black men could make a big difference in swing states.

Democrats wouldn’t be wrong to fret about this group, either.

According to exit polls, Black men have only made up about 5 percent of the electorate in presidential elections since 2008.

But the share captured by Democrats has been shrinking. In 2008, 95 percent backed Obama. In 2012, that was down to 87 percent. In 2016? Down to 80 percent.

Whatever it takes (to win)

Over the last four years, Donald Trump has demonstrated that he’ll do whatever it takes to win.

In 2016, he welcomed Russia’s interference in the presidential election. (“Boy, I love reading those WikiLeaks.”)

In the final days of the 2018 midterms, he constantly warned about the approaching caravan of undocumented immigrants. (Remember that?)

And in 2019, he asked Ukraine’s president to investigate Joe Biden and his son. (“There's a lot of talk about Biden's son, that Biden stopped the prosecution and a lot of people want to find out about that so whatever you can do with the Attorney General would be great.”)

That’s the context to view how Trump and his team last night either blurred the lines — or blatantly crossed them — by mixing explicit politics with the direct functions of the federal government, whether it was issuing that pardon, or overseeing a naturalization ceremony or having the first lady deliver a speech from the Rose Garden.

They are not afraid to leverage the power of the White House, and that’s something to watch over the next 10 weeks before the election.

Also, we’ve learned that if Washington wants its political norms back, it will need to pass legislation to do so.

Tweet of the day

Data Download: The numbers you need to know today

5,797,967: The number of confirmed cases of coronavirus in the United States, per the most recent data from NBC News and health officials. (That’s 36,658 more than yesterday morning.)

179,465: The number of deaths in the United States from the virus so far. (That’s 1,077 more than yesterday morning.)

73.02 million: The number of coronavirus tests administered in the U.S., according to researchers at The COVID Tracking Project.

More than 550: The number of people at the University of Alabama who have tested positive for the virus since classes began a week ago.

8: The number of states where coronavirus cases have been linked to the Sturgis Motorcycle rally earlier this month.

2: The number of people killed in Kenosha, Wis., last night amid escalating protests after the police shooting of Jacob Blake.

More than 350,000: The number of acres that have been charred in the California LNU Lightning Complex fire.

Talking policy with Benjy

Can Trump be trusted on a vaccine? Lately, there’s been hopeful news on the vaccine front. But even if one of the current candidates in trials is found to be safe, effective, and is approved for use, there’s still the issue of convincing Americans to actually take it.

That’s one reason the president’s sudden public pressure campaign against his own FDA, including a baseless tweet last week suggesting a “deep state” conspiracy to delay research until after the election, is concerning.

Trump’s heavy hand is already creating perception issues for his officials. After he joined the FDA in announcing new emergency use approval for a blood plasma treatment, experts worried the administration was overselling its potential benefits. On Tuesday, FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn apologized for giving a misleading description of the data behind the decision, while still stressing that politics played no role in the process or its timing right before the convention.

“I’m worried either we won’t have a safe enough vaccine or that at some point we will, but we’ve so undermined the trust in our agencies that people won’t take it,” Sandra C. Quinn, a professor at the University of Maryland School of Public Health, told NBC News.

According to Quinn, the episode demonstrates the importance of providing maximum transparency around any vaccine that gets approved to make sure outside experts can look over the data and confidently vouch for its efficacy. She also suggested state and local health departments, ideally with funding from Washington, start laying the groundwork now with PSAs and outreach campaigns to educate the public on how vaccines are researched, approved, and distributed in order to manage expectations and prevent rumors from spreading later.

2020 Vision: Day Three’s lineup for the GOP convention

Tonight’s speakers for the Republicans’ convention include:

  • Vice President Mike Pence (from Ft. McHenry in Baltimore)
  • Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa
  • Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn.
  • South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem
  • Outgoing White House counselor Kellyanne Conway
  • Former acting director of national intelligence Richard Grenell

Ad watch from Ben Kamisar

Today's Ad Watch is a victory lap for Oklahoma state Sen. Stephanie Bice, who edged out businesswoman Terry Neese during Tuesday night's Republican primary in OK-5. Bice won despite being outspent on the airwaves by not just Neese, but also the Club for Growth, which backed her opponent.

The Club spent $443,000 during the primary runoff on TV and radio, according to Advertising Analytics, and Neese spent $349,000. Bice, by comparison, spent $228,000.

Now, Bice will face off against Oklahoma Democratic Rep. Kendra Horn in one of the reddest districts currently held by Democrats

Dem introduces bill to strengthen penalties for violating Hatch Act

The Hatch Act is supposed to curb political activity of government officials using their posts to push forward a political stance — but the Trump administration has time and time again proven that they don’t care about pushing that law to its limits.

While President Trump is exempt from the Hatch Act, other administration officials aren’t — and the Republican National Convention is showing officials using their posts during a strictly political event (like acting DHS Secretary Chad Wolf overseeing a naturalization ceremony at the White House during the convention).

Illinois Rep. Mike Quigley introduced the Reducing Nefarious Crimes Act on Tuesday to “increase penalties for violating the Hatch Act and make it clear that the American people take ethics in government seriously.”

The Lid: Crime and punishment

Don’t miss the pod from yesterday, when we looked at the numbers behind the GOP’s convention warnings about chaos and violent crime.

ICYMI: What else is happening in the world

The RNC abruptly canceled a speaker last night after reports that she shared anti-Semitic and pro-QAnon conspiracy theories.

Trump says he’s officially nominating Chad Wolf to be head of DHS after 10 months of him acting in the role.

Kamala Harris has an op-ed in the Washington Post about Women’s Equality Day.

Yes, Jerry Falwell Jr. is out at Liberty University. He also says he’s getting a $10.5 million severance package.

The New York Times looks at Mike Pence’s 2024 ambitions.

A 19 year-old state House candidate who dropped out of the race after revelations of bullying and revenge porn now says he wants back in.