Top Republicans had been working closely with North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper and other state Democratic officials as recently as Friday to plan the upcoming GOP national convention amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Then President Donald Trump threatened to pull the convention from Charlotte.
Trump’s tweet not only came as a surprise to Republican officials on Monday, but it also was completely at odds with the position that top convention officials expressed during the Friday meeting, CNN has learned.
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Marcia Kelly, the president and CEO of the convention, spoke with Cooper and the state’s secretary of health and human services, Dr. Mandy Cohen, in a telephone meeting Friday. A person familiar with the call said that Kelly outlined a range of options for the Republican convention in August – “from a full in-person convention to a virtual or online convention.”
Kelly, who was selected by Trump for the position, did not mention a timeline for a decision to be made about the convention, the person familiar with the call said, who described the conversation as cordial and productive.
All major organizations, from the Charlotte Hornets to the Carolina Panthers to NASCAR, have been asked to submit plans to the state for holding their large-scale events. The Republican convention has not yet submitted its own plan for how the gathering, set for August 24-27, would be held safely.
Cohen sent a letter to Kelly on Monday, reiterating that Republican convention planners need to outline a plan for different levels of the pandemic and how it would impact the event into the convention planning.
“A written plan provides a necessary and valuable starting point to planning discussions with our public health teams at the county and state levels,” Cohen wrote.
White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows also spoke with Cooper last week, a person familiar with the call said, and a range of options about the convention was discussed. Meadows, a former North Carolina congressman, did not demand an urgent decision be made about the convention, the source said.
A source familiar with the conversation between Meadows and Cooper said that the White House chief of staff asked the governor to give them a firmer idea of how he envisioned the convention by the first or second week of June.
The Republican National Committee said in a statement on Monday that it supported the President’s demand for the governor to provide assurances that “a full in-person convention” could be held – even as convention officials have said Trump’s threat during a series of tweets on Memorial Day caught them off guard.
A spokeswoman for the convention told CNN that Kelly had not said Republicans would hold a virtual or online convention.
“We’re planning for an in-person convention just as we have been all along,” the spokeswoman said.
The coronavirus has upended American life, including the ongoing presidential election, which has been devoid of in-person events since early March. Both Democrats and Republicans have grappled with how to hold a traditional nominating convention during a pandemic, especially given the virus is transmitted by close human-to-human contact.
The two parties, as evidenced by Trump’s recent tweets, are handling the issue differently, however. Democrats moved their planned event in Milwaukee from July to August and are moving ahead cautiously with planning, openly acknowledging that this year’s event may need to be virtual. Republicans, by comparison, have plowed full speed ahead with plan for an in-person event.
“I love the Great State of North Carolina, so much so that I insisted on having the Republican National Convention in Charlotte at the end of August,” Trump said in a series of tweets on Monday. “Unfortunately, Democrat Governor, @RoyCooperNC is still in Shutdown mood & unable to guarantee that by August we will be allowed full attendance in the Arena.”
He added: “They must be immediately given an answer by the Governor as to whether or not the space will be allowed to be fully occupied. If not, we will be reluctantly forced to find, with all of the jobs and economic development it brings, another Republican National Convention site.”
Cooper told reporters Tuesday that he was not surprised by Trump’s unexpected tweets – “I am not surprised by anything that I see on Twitter,” he said – but added that he and his health officials are still waiting for health plans from Republican officials.
“It is OK for political conventions to be political but pandemic response cannot be,” Cooper said. “Already we have been in talks with the RNC about the kind of convention that they would need to run and the kind of options that we need on the table. … We want to see from the RNC what their plans are, and we have asked them to submit those plans to our public health officials.”
The governor said his discussions with Republican planners have been similar to those he has had with top sports teams.
“Everybody knows we have to take some steps to make sure that people are protected because this virus is still going to be with us in August and we are going to have to take steps to protect people,” Cooper added.
To some top Republicans, Trump’s decision to publicly call out Cooper was a strategic attempt to make the Democratic governor – who is up for reelection in 2020 – the scapegoat for any changes that need to be made to the convention.
Trump was attempting to force Cooper “to be the bad guy,” a Republican operative familiar with the convention process told CNN.
Another source familiar with Trump’s thinking told CNN that the President’s goal with his tweet was to try to force Cooper to define what the rules of the road will be for the convention and underscored that Trump does not want to pull out of North Carolina.
Trump on Tuesday said that Cooper has about ” a week” to decide whether convention could take place in Charlotte.
“Now if he can’t do it, if he feels that he’s not going to do it – all he has to do is tell us and then we’ll have to pick another location,” the President said.
He also insisted that “thousands of people” should be able to get into the arena.
“But he’s got to say that when thousands of people come to the arena that they’ll be able to get in … we’ll spend millions and millions of dollars on this magnificent design but in the end they have to be able to get in.”
The uncertainty around the North Carolina convention has led other states to attempt to woo Trump and the Republican committee away from North Carolina.
“With world-class facilities, restaurants, hotels, and workforce, Georgia would be honored to safely host the Republican National Convention,” Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, a Republican, tweeted on Tuesday. “We hope you will consider the Peach State, @realdonaldtrump!”
Republican officials from Texas and Florida also made public offers to Trump, hoping he will grow fed up with North Carolina and consider the two Republican-controlled states.
During a press conference on Tuesday, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said his state would “love to have the RNC” and would be open to hosting the DNC as well.
“The door is open. We want to have the conversation whether it’s RNC or DNC because I think it would be good for the people of Florida,” the Republican said. “Florida wants to work with you if you’re a business, if you’re a sports team, if you want to have some of these events, we want to work with you to get to yes.”
Cooper did not say on Tuesday whether he is worried about the convention leaving Charlotte.
“I supported having the convention in North Carolina, but we have to put the health and safety of North Carolinians as the guiding star in this process,” the governor said. “We hope to continue the discussions” with the RNC.
This story has been updated with additional developments Tuesday.
CNN’s Ryan Nobles, Kaitlan Collins and Allie Malloy contributed to this story.