President Donald Trump announced Thursday that Republicans have scrapped plans to hold convention activities in Jacksonville, Florida.
The move is a striking turnaround for Trump, who moved the convention to Jacksonville after North Carolina’s governor raised public health concerns about having massive gatherings in Charlotte, as the GOP had long planned.
Pared-back events in Charlotte will still be held, Trump said.
Despite urges to ignore them, Trump was closely watching as several Republican lawmakers said they weren’t going to Jacksonville or were considering not going, a person familiar said. Trump was wary of having sparse attendance at the convention. Just a month ago, the Trump campaign was playing up expectations for a massive crowd at the President’s first rally since the pandemic began, but those crowds in Tulsa, Oklahoma, were much smaller than expected.
Campaign manager Bill Stepien and Republican National Committee chairwoman Ronna McDaniel met with Trump recently, telling him it was still possible to go forward with the convention but that canceling was also still an option, according a GOP source with knowledge of the process. They presented the option to cancel as a chance for Trump to demonstrate leadership, and he was much more open to the idea than he had been in the past, the source said.
Trump said on Thursday he informed his team that his focus was on protecting the American people, even though aides advised him they could make an in-person convention safe.
“I looked at my team and I said the timing for this event is not right. It’s just not right,” Trump said at the White House. “To have a big convention, it’s not the right time.”
“There’s nothing more important in our country than keeping our people safe,” Trump said.
His decision Thursday marks a complete reversal after insisting for months that an in-person acceptance speech be delivered before a massive crowd.
Earlier in the pandemic, Trump forced the Republican National Committee to embark upon an extensive search for a new venue to host an in-person convention after North Carolina’s Democratic governor balked at the prospect of a major gathering.
Trump has now upended convention plans in two key swing states he must win to have a shot at reelection.
Trump’s announcement about Jacksonville came hours after Quinnipiac released a poll showing Biden leading Trump 51% to 38% in Florida.
The poll also found that 62% of those surveyed believed it would be unsafe to hold the event in Jacksonville, to 34% who thought it would be safe. Among Republicans, 69% said doing so would be safe, while 26% said they thought it would be unsafe.
As recently as last week, convention organizers had been planning to limit its crowd to 2,500 delegates on the first three nights of the event, followed by 7,000 on its final night, when Trump would deliver what would likely be the most important speech of his reelection bid on prime-time television.
McDaniel sent a letter to convention delegates last week informing them of the changes, telling them the party fully intended to conduct a convention celebration, but would do so by making adjustments that comply with local health guidelines.
Those plans to pare down the convention – and then a week later, cancel the portion in Jacksonville altogether – were made as coronavirus cases spiked in Florida.
Trump said Republicans would still meet in Charlotte as planned on the first day of the four-day convention to handle official business.
He said Republicans will plan something “exciting,” but that it will be “nothing like having 25,000 people.”
A convention official described chaos inside the RNC after Trump pulled the plug on Jacksonville. The official described the situation as “a multimillion dollar debacle and think of where that money could have gone,” noting the funds could have been better spent on fighting the virus.
The official added there were some questions whether all campaign staffers scheduled to work the event would actually show given concerns about the virus. Now, convention staffers aren’t sure what to do – go home or go to Charlotte, the official said.
Florida Republicans, who have been scrambling to piece together the components necessary to pull off the Jacksonville convention, received little heads up about the President’s decision to cancel the event.
The President wanted to make the announcement himself, and his decision was reached within the last 24 hours, a Republican official close to the convention planning told CNN.
“As you can tell from the fact that it didn’t leak, it was a very small group – by design,” the GOP official said.
One Florida GOP official told CNN that some leaders in the state were informed of the decision shortly before the President made the announcement during his news conference.
A Republican official in Jacksonville told CNN that a trip for local business leaders to Tampa next week – to meet with people to learn about their 2012 convention experience – was abruptly canceled on Wednesday. The official was not given a reason for the cancellation.
While Jacksonville business leaders were eager to showcase the city, many were deeply apprehensive that the GOP convention would bring unwelcome attention and fan flames of racial unrest in the city.
The Duval County Sheriff had been vocal about his security concerns and, as of this week, the hotel plan was still a big subject of controversy.
A key moment in the decision to scrap Jacksonville came when the local sheriff said adequate security could not be provided for the convention given the pandemic, the convention official said. That sheriff, the official said, has close ties to other local officials in the area who were all becoming more concerned by the day about hosting the convention.
“This outcome is better for Jacksonville,” a prominent Republican business leader told CNN.
This story has been updated with additional developments.
CNN’s Jeff Zeleny, Ryan Nobles, Dana Bash, Kaitlan Collins and Jim Acosta contributed to this report.