WASHINGTON — 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 reelection 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 of packed with supporters, without face masks. Outwardly, the White House and the RNC have said they're full-steam 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.
"I think it's going to be, obviously, a little different than what would be typical of other conventions, given the circumstance," Donald Trump Jr. told reporters last week. "And I think that's totally reasonable and understandable."
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 three-month 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. It really depends on the timing. Look, we're very flexible."
- Zeke Miller and Scott Bauer