Aug 23, 2020 - Politics & Policy

The GOP convention will be a Trumpian production

Photo illustration of President Trump in front of a crowd with a giant spotlight on him.
Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios. Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images

This week's Republican National Convention will be The Trump Show from start to finish, aiming for ratings-juicing stunts, attention-grabbing speeches from MAGA stars, and executive power as performance art, people familiar with the plans tell Axios.

What to expect: "Think of each night like an episode," says one source. "And what would an episode be without an appearance from the star?"

Behind the scenes: President Trump made clear to aides that he wanted a grand, raucous convention — to the extent such things are achievable during a pandemic. He wanted a live audience, which he'll now get on the White House's South Lawn.

  • He didn't like the Zoom-call feel of the Democratic convention, and he thought many of the speeches went on too long, people close to him said.

Sources close to the convention said Team Trump is trying to leverage all its advantages — the powers of the presidency and the setting of the White House.

  • Traditionally, nominees only speak on the last night of the convention. Trump, however, will appear every night.
  • The sources say they're making sure that the White House Counsel's Office clears all activities.

Trump will shatter tradition — and, many say, propriety — by delivering his acceptance speech from a grand stage on the South Lawn.

  • Nearby on Constitution Avenue, Team Trump has decked out the Andrew W. Mellon Auditorium, which will be the site of many of the speeches.
  • It's a Trumpian scene, I'm told: You can't walk 3 feet without running into an American flag. There's a red carpet and columns with gilded accents.

You'll hear from the McCloskeys — the St. Louis couple who brandished guns at Black Lives Matter protesters — and from Nick Sandmann, the Covington teen who has sued a host of media outlets and settled with CNN and The Washington Post. All of Trump's adult children, including Tiffany, will also speak.

  • Unlike the other Trump children, Tiffany is very private and hasn't made a public speech since the 2016 Republican National Convention.
  • The first lady will also speak from the newly renovated Rose Garden.
  • And Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will be addressing the RNC from "an undisclosed location" in Jerusalem, per a source familiar with his plans.

Sources are especially excited about two speakers:

  • Alice Marie Johnson, whose prison sentence Trump commuted.
  • Vernon Jones, a Democratic state representative from Georgia who endorsed Trump, withdrew from re-election, and accused his own party of bigotry against African Americans.

Between the lines: After Trump delivered his third State of the Union address in February, he told people that the moment he loved most was when, mid-speech, he awarded cancer-stricken radio host Rush Limbaugh with America's highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

  • In that made-for-television moment, Trump set a template for this convention: He leveraged one of his presidential powers to create a reality TV surprise.

What we're hearing: Trump's aides say they are keenly aware of the advantages the Democrats had for their convention.

  • Democrats started preparing earlier for a virtual convention because Joe Biden was much quicker than Trump to give up on the idea of an in-person event.
  • Democrats had more celebrities, more Hollywood sizzle and higher-profile crossover supporters, including former Ohio Gov. John Kasich and former Secretary of State Colin Powell.

What's new: The Democratic National Convention focused on Joe Biden's character, on racial justice and on bipartisan unity. Major themes of the Republican convention will include "law and order," the "economic comeback" and "cancel culture," said a source familiar with the planning.

  • "There'll be tons of pro-law enforcement messages, tons of pro-military messages, and an overall theme of red-white-and-blue, Trump-style patriotism," said another source briefed on the planning.

The bottom line: People familiar with the planning said Trump will be portrayed as the "tough" leader standing between safe streets and leftist anarchy.

  • Trump-supporting actor James Woods unwittingly previewed the convention with this tweet on Aug. 12: "This is our last stand, folks. And here's your last defender. If they take him down, America is gone forever. Vote for @realDonaldTrump like your life depends on it."
  • That may be the one parallel between the DNC and the RNC: Both sides paint November in existential terms. At the Democratic National Convention, Michelle Obama said Americans should vote for Biden "like our lives depend on it."
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