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Trump cancels RNC in Jacksonville: ‘The timing of the event is not right’

The GOP convention was scheduled for August 24-27.

President Donald Trump abruptly announced Thursday that the Republican National Convention in Jacksonville is canceled, ending a weeks-long sprint to pull off the party’s signature political event amid a pandemic.

Citing ongoing concerns about Florida’s coronavirus outbreak, Trump told reporters during a White House briefing, “The timing of the event is not right. It’s just not right.”

The news came as a surprise to several Florida Republicans close to the event and the president. U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz, one of Trump’s closet allies in Congress, said he didn’t know Trump had made this call. Nor did state Sen. Joe Gruters, the chairman of the Republican Party of Florida who helped bring the event to the Sunshine State.

“It was obviously shocking news, and a little disappointing, but it think the president acted in a selfless way tonight,” Gruters said.

The decision was made Thursday afternoon, Trump said, after he met with his political advisers to review the latest plans for the convention, which was scheduled for Aug. 24-27. Upon seeing the blueprints, which he said “looked absolutely beautiful,” Trump said he told his team he didn’t want to go through with it because of the “flare up” of coronavirus cases in Florida. The state Department of Health reported 173 deaths on Thursday, a new record.

Trump said his aides insisted that the event could continue as planned and still keep the public safe, but that he had made up his mind.

The technical aspects of the convention will take place in Charlotte, Trump said, and he will still deliver an address to Republicans, though he was vague on details, such as the location of the address.

“I’ll still do a convention speech, in a different form,” Trump said. “But we won’t do a big crowded convention, per se.”

It was only six weeks ago that Trump stripped the convention from Charlotte, the previous host city, after clashing with Democratic North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper over what the president then deemed to be overly demanding restrictions related to the coronavirus. Trump and the Republican Party then settled on Jacksonville, in part because Florida was swiftly reopening the economy amid falling coronavirus cases.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry enthusiastically welcomed the event. Curry celebrated the announcement with a flashy video and promises of a post-coronavirus economic boom for his city. However, the reality on the ground dramatically shifted. Florida subsequently emerged as the new national hot spot.

From the start, there were signs the event was on shaky footing. Trump’s acceptance speech was initially planned for the 60th anniversary of Ax Handle Saturday, a notorious race riot in the city’s history. Some local officials worried that fact could add fuel to convention protests.

Related: In Jacksonville, can RNC ‘coexist’ with anniversary of a racist attack?

More recently, organizers said they would shift to a more scaled-down convention with smaller crowds. RNC Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel announced last week that just delegates, a single guest per delegate and alternate delegates would be permitted to attend the president’s nomination speech on the final evening of the convention. Speeches set for earlier in the convention were restricted to the party’s roughly 2,500 delegates only.

At one point, they considered holding some events at outdoor venues, which may have helped slow the spread of the virus but risked subjecting attendees to Florida’s tropical weather for hours. Curry announced a mandate for masks, the same type of restriction that Trump objected to in Charlotte.

The final nail arrived this week when Duval County Sheriff Mike Williams suggested he didn’t have enough details to provide adequate security to keep attendees and Jacksonville residents safe. Still, even with COVID-19 deaths registering in the triple digits and his local sheriff no longer on board, Curry still remained that the show would go on.

Yet meanwhile, back at the White House, Trump’s tone turned more somber. For the first time, he acknowledged the severity of the coronavirus crisis in Florida, declaring Tuesday that it was likely to get worse before it got better.

Democrats pounced on Trump’s reversal.

“I’m glad Donald Trump took his head out of the sand long enough to realize what a predictable, preventable disaster he was about to inflict on the city of Jacksonville,” said Democratic Party Chair Terrie Rizzo. “His ego-driven political stunt has wasted precious time and resources during a pandemic, and Floridians will remember his reckless leadership in November.”

The state GOP had been working throughout Thursday on President Trump’s nomination celebration. Earlier in the day, the event host committee sent reporters information on obtaining credentials for the event, suggesting few knew Trump was going to pull the plug.

Gruters said he believed the party could have pulled off a safe event in Jacksonville. But the GOP chairman said Trump acted on information from his top advisers, and ultimately made the right call.

”You can’t have a successful event without ensuring everybody’s safety and he obviously realized that wasn’t going to be possible,” Gruters said.

Trump said he already informed DeSantis and other leaders. DeSantis didn’t mention the change in plans when he addressed reporters earlier Thursday, though his schedule says he spoke with Trump and Vice President Mike Pence on Wednesday night.

“I feel for the organizers of the convention in both cities,” said Ken Jones, who served as the chief executive officer of Tampa host committee for the 2012 Republican National Convention and was advising Trump’s team. “A lot of blood sweat and tears go into organizing these events and they take a long time to plan. It’s sure disappointing to see things change so abruptly in both Charlotte and Jacksonville and I’m sure a lot people are disappointed they can’t showcase their city.”

Speaking about Florida, where the president claims full-time residency, Trump said, “It’s a place I love. I love that state. The drawings look absolutely beautiful. I never thought we could have something look so good so fast with everything going on. And everything was going well. A tremendous list of speakers.”

”The pageantry, the signs, the excitement were really really top of the line, but I looked at my team and I said the timing for this event is not right, it’s just not right with what’s happened recently, the flare-up in Florida. To have a big convention, it’s not the right time.”

Miami Herald staff writer David Smiley and McClatchy DC reporters Francesca Chambers, Alex Daugherty and Michael Wilner contributed to this report.

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