How the Republican National Convention came undone
But behind the scenes, advisers were scrambling to plan a massive multi-day event amid a pandemic. They asked the federal government to provide protective equipment, lined up labs to test thousands of attendees each day, and shifted from an indoor arena in Charlotte to one in Jacksonville, Fla., and then again to a covered practice field used by an NFL franchise nearby.
But ultimately, the rising coronavirus caseload — and the political cost of forcing risky behavior on thousands just months before the election — proved too great. Advisers convinced Trump that canceling the convention could help him politically as he tries to pay closer attention to the coronavirus, show that he cares about the health of Americans and improve his sagging poll numbers.
The chaotic unraveling bears many of the hallmarks of the tumultuous Trump presidency: the public dismissal of scientific expertise, Trumpian allegations of political conspiracy and advisers run ragged to carry out a task that was next to impossible from the start.
Even as Democrats began to rethink their event last spring, Republican planners moved forward at Trump’s urging.
The president publicly mocked former vice president Joe Biden on Twitter for planning a virtual convention “where he doesn’t have to show up.” He accused Democratic governors of denying him rally permits for political advantage and dismissed the warnings against mass gatherings.
Republicans were hoping that the viral threat would ease over the summer, effectively nullifying the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, which discourage gatherings of more than 10 for “organizations that serve higher-risk populations,” a description that fits a significant share of Republican convention attendees — including Trump himself — who are over the age of 65 or have medical conditions.
Instead, the coronavirus caseload — and the death rate — spiked across the country. The city of Jacksonville was particularly hard hit, with hospitals filling and daily case counts rising from a few dozen in the county to sometimes more than 700 a day.
The spiraling situation convinced Trump that his event would not allow the crowds he hoped for because of social distancing requirements. “When it wasn’t going to be the kind of convention he wanted, he wasn’t as excited about it as you’d think,” said one senior Republican, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations. “People kept telling him cases in Florida were going up. And he saw a way to get some good headlines out of canceling it.”
Republican officials were staking out other ideas, including a speech with a stage and regional and virtual events.
For months, RNC officials had been working on the convention in Charlotte, which was awarded the contract in 2018. In late May, Trump upended their work with a Memorial Day tweet threatening to move the festivities if he was not allowed to supersede health restrictions.
Republican officials traveled to scout locations in Tennessee, Texas and Nevada. Several governors optimistically courted the event.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) was among the most aggressive in seeking the prize, assuring the president’s team that he’d treat them better than Cooper, a person familiar with the matter said. Just days before Trump called Cooper to demand a non-socially distanced event, DeSantis had all but declared victory over the virus for his state in a news conference with Vice President Pence outside a nursing home.
“We have succeeded and I think that people just don’t want to recognize it, because it challenges their narrative,” DeSantis declared about his state’s relative caseload compared with parts of the Northeast and Midwest.
Jacksonville offered other draws, as well. Republicans held a supermajority on the city council and the mayor, Lenny Curry, was a former state GOP chairman, who was determined to send the message to the rest of the country that his city was back open for business.
The downtown area was filled with several potential venues — a football stadium, a hockey arena, a concent venue — and the nearby resort of Amelia Island was available to host the president’s high-dollar fundraisers.
City officials even discussed with the RNC putting attendees on a cruise ship, though the idea was scuttled, one person familiar with the situation said. Other donors spoke of anchoring yachts on the St. Johns River to host after-party celebrations.
But nearly as soon as the announced move was made, the caseload began to rise. By late June, bars had been shut down, and masks were required in most public spaces. For local elected officials, the event began to look more and more ominous. Party talking points shifted from insisting on a mask-optional event without social distancing to a pledge to follow the guidance of local health authorities.
On July 6, the convention host committee announced that “everyone attending the convention within the perimeter will be tested and temperature checked each day,” an enormous undertaking that was never fully explained. Party officials said the plan was to send the tests away for processing in the mail.
At the same time, local officials began to sound the alarm. “Every effort has been made, countless hours spent, and all have been committed to the mission to keep our city safe. And at this point, we’re simply past the point of no return to execute the event safely,” Sheriff Mike Williams, a well-respected Republican, said in a Monday news conference.
That sent the White House scrambling. White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows talked with Williams on Wednesday, and another call was set up for him later in the week with the Department of Homeland Security, according to a person familiar with the planning.
Democratic City Councilman Garrett L. Dennis noted that the sheriff is term-limited. “He knew that it was going to be on his hands,” Dennis said. “If it went south, if it went bad, and there were riots, it was going to be on him.”
A further complication arose when the mayor sent a bill to the city council to authorize him to spend $33 million on the convention, with the promise of reimbursement later by federal grant. The bill laid out a number of zoning changes for the events, but offered only one mention of covid-19, in a section explaining why gas masks would be prohibited in the convention perimeter but other face masks would be allowed.
A workshop to discuss the council’s concerns had been scheduled for Friday, promising to put both the Republican Party and the mayor on the record in defense of the convention. The local Republican Party, hoping to help whip votes, asked its supporters to call their local elected officials to push for the bill’s approval.
“There was going to be a lot of opposition,” said Dennis, who planned to oppose the bill. “Our mayor unilaterally sought out the convention. It was wrong. He jeopardized lives and our money in going after this thing.”
Then on Thursday, a representative of the mayor asked the city council to delay the hearing through the weekend.
One Florida Republican, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations, said the mayor had been working even hours before Trump announced the cancellation. “I was confident it was going to come together,” he said, though, “it was certainly not a good sign that we had to delay the city council vote.”
When Trump pulled the plug, Florida officials were given about an hour’s notice. RNC officials had already begun working with two health care firms to provide testing for the site.
By Thursday night, Trump had announced that he would cancel the event, giving himself credit for accepting a reality Democrats had embraced months earlier.
“I have to protect the American people,” Trump said Thursday at the White House. “That’s what I have always done. That is what I will always do. That’s what I am about.”
But he also made clear he was worried he would be seen as endangering people for his own benefit. “I could see the media saying, ‘Oh, this is very unsafe.’ . . . I don’t want to be in that position.” Officials said most sponsors and donors would not get their money back in either city.
For some, the decision seemed a long time coming.
“I’m not a fortune teller, but it goes without saying that the virus has been really penetrating the southern part of the country since early May,” said Malcolm Graham, a member of the Charlotte City Council who opposed having the GOP convention in his city amid the pandemic. “So you can read the writing on the wall, that whether it was an RNC convention, or a DNC convention, or a Tupperware convention, there would be some issues.”