If voters see a president at work, perhaps they’ll be more likely to reelect him.
That was the calculation Tuesday, when President Donald Trump took the powers of his office and applied them openly and brazenly to his political efforts.
Already treading on ethical lines by hosting his convention partly from the White House, Trump burst past them in his taped appearances issuing a pardon and presiding over a naturalization ceremony. Later his secretary of state appeared in a video taped on an official trip to Israel, a move that’s already prompted an investigation from House Democrats.
The advantages of incumbency are afforded to any sitting president. But Trump’s use of his office went well past his predecessors.
The effect was a markedly more forward-leading tone than the somber debut evening on Monday. The second evening highlighted Trump’s support for everyday Americans, bolstered his backing among evangelicals and underscored his achievements abroad – even as it seemed, at moments, to ignore the realities of a country confronting a historic pandemic and racial unrest.
It took an evening-ending speech from first lady Melania Trump to finally address the realities of the still-ongoing coronavirus pandemic and to confront aspect of the country’s ugly history that are facing new reckoning – while also laying out second-term initiatives that seemed more detailed that what her husband has cited as rationale for reelection.
Tuesday also put more members of Trump’s family on display, even as his rival Joe Biden was accused of nepotism.
Here are six other takeaways from the second night of the Republican National Convention:
The presidency as a stump speech
Trump’s two “surprise” appearances during Tuesday’s convention blatantly used his presidential powers to promote a political message – advancing the impression that Republicans are exploiting his office to support his reelection.
In pretaped videos, the President issued a pardon for a man who had robbed a bank in Nevada and later founded an organization for former inmates, and then Trump presided over a naturalization ceremony for new American citizens – two acts that flexed the powers of the incumbency during the highest-profile political event of the calendar.
All presidents, in some way, use the powers of their office when it comes time for reelection. That includes highlighting executive orders that benefit key voting blocs or touting foreign policy achievement available only to the sitting commander in chief.
But never have those moves been so blatantly staged for political gain – as they appeared to be Tuesday, with highly produced videos meant for debut at a political convention.
Trump had already been accused of violating ethics norms by utilizing the White House for his upcoming convention speech on Thursday. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, whose convention speech Tuesday is unprecedented for the country’s top diplomat, is now being investigated by House Democrats for the speech he taped from a hotel rooftop during an official trip to Israel.
But the two appearances Trump taped on Tuesday were the most direct use of his office for political gain. Pardon power is one of the most sweeping prerogatives a president enjoys, spelled out in the Constitution. Trump has previously deployed it for political allies or people with high-profile cases.
On Tuesday, the White House released a video clip on YouTube of Trump issuing a full pardon for Jon Ponder, a former bank robber who’s the founder and CEO of HOPE for Prisoners, a ministry in Las Vegas that helps those who are incarcerated reintegrate into the community.
It also posted a video of Trump overseeing a naturalization ceremony for five new US citizens. He emphasized the achievements of each of the citizens, and congratulated them on coming to the country legally.
“You followed the rules, you obeyed the laws, you learned your history, embraced our values and proved yourselves to be men and women of the highest integrity,” the President told the participants.
Both events occurred at the White House. Administration officials have said previously that Trump’s use of the building doesn’t violate any laws and that staffers are permitted to participate on their own time as long as his appearances occur in the residence portion and not the West Wing.
The first lady acknowledges reality
After a two-hour program that made almost no mention of the coronavirus pandemic still crippling the country, first lady Melania Trump offered the first words of sympathy of the entire convention for Americans who had lost loved ones to the disease.
“My deepest sympathy goes to everyone who has lost a loved one and my prayers are with those who are ill and suffering,” she said, acknowledging that all Americans’ lives had “changed drastically” and that many people were anxious or helpless.
“I want you to know you are not alone,” she said. “My husband’s administration will not stop fighting until there is an effective treatment or vaccine for everyone.”
Later, she also acknowledged current racial unrest that her husband has stoked with racist rhetoric and an appeal to “heritage.”
“It is a harsh reality that we are not proud of parts of our history,” she said. “I encourage people to focus on our future, while still learning from our past. We must remember that today, we are all one community, comprised of many races, religions, and ethnicities.”
Her message of gratitude to front-line workers and compassion for those who lost everything were a sharp break from any previous speaker, many of whom either glossed over the bitter realities of the crisis or ignored it altogether.
One benefit of using the White House for this week’s convention was marshaling the public health resources that have allowed President Trump to proceed relatively unencumbered by the pandemic.
During his naturalization and pardon ceremonies, and during the first lady’s address in the Rose Garden, none of the participants wore masks — and, because they came into close proximity with the President, had presumably been tested under a strict diagnostic protocol administered by the White House.
Unlike Democrats and most other Americans, Trump is surrounded by a security and safety bubble that has protected him from the virus. It allows him to go about life almost like normal, which is a reality Republicans would love to project but that won’t look familiar to many Americans still working from home, wearing masks to stores and restaurants and struggling to juggle the mounting pressures of a generational crisis.
On Monday, Trump and others had sought to rewrite the pandemic’s history, ignoring his attempts to downplay the outbreak early on and failing to mention the staggering death toll.
On Tuesday, the pandemic was almost entirely absent until Melania Trump spoke. Watching the convention and listening to its speakers, the consistent references to coronavirus in the past tense were jarring.
Larry Kudlow, the President’s top economic adviser, said the pandemic “rocked us all back on our heels” but the President “went to work” to “preserve our jobs and our livelihoods” – as if the crisis were over.
The first lady, whose speech was not vetted ahead of time by the President’s aides, took a dramatically different approach.
“I want to acknowledge the fact that since March, our lives have changed drastically,” she said, acknowledging a reality that her husband has not. “The invisible enemy, Covid-19, swept across our beautiful country and impacted all of us.”
In her speech Tuesday, former Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi – who joined the President’s legal team when he was impeached last year – railed against Biden and his son, whom she cast as the beneficiary of corrupt nepotism.
In the same evening, two of Trump’s own adult children – one of whom runs the company his father started with a sizable loan from his own father – also spoke.
It was a jarring contradiction, though convention organizers did not seem overly concerned and did little to strike what seemed like tone-deaf moments from the Trump children’s remarks.
“As a recent graduate, I can relate to so many of you who might be looking for a job,” said Tiffany Trump in her speech, which did not focus heavily on her relationship with her father but instead struck more generic tones about freedom of thought.
Bondi’s assault on Joe and Hunter Biden was the first major injection of the controversy at the center of the impeachment proceedings into the convention. Trump was accused of soliciting foreign election interference when he asked Ukraine’s President to look into Hunter Biden, the son of the former vice president who served on the board of a Ukrainian energy firm.
“He only had one qualification that mattered: He was the son of the man in charge of distributing US aid to Ukraine,” Bondi claimed.
Trump and his allies have repeatedly made unfounded and false claims to allege that the former vice president and his son acted corruptly in Ukraine.
Hunter Biden helped introduce his father at last week’s convention, leading to the sense that Democrats aren’t particularly concerned that he will be a distraction during his father’s campaign. And Republicans haven’t placed him at the center of their messaging strategy, though Bondi’s appearance on Tuesday was an indication that it will be at least a part of their attempt to define Biden.
Still, the attempts to paint the Biden family as rife with nepotism and corruption could be undercut by the appearances of all four of Trump’s adult children, including Eric and Tiffany Trump on Tuesday.
As the convention was kicking off, the New York state attorney general said she had taken legal action to compel the testimony of Eric Trump in connection with her office’s investigation into the Trump Organization, saying in recent weeks he has refused to appear to give testimony pursuant to a subpoena.
Trump and evangelicals
Trump’s ties to the evangelical community have always been somewhat nebulous. A thrice-married New Yorker with no previous record as a churchgoer who once declared himself “very pro-choice,” he wasn’t the first choice for many in 2016 and worked hard to convince conservative Christians he was on their side – including by selecting Mike Pence as his running mate, who was featured Tuesday in a lengthy video filmed at the Indiana boyhood home of Abraham Lincoln.
Perhaps because his personality didn’t seem to jibe with any definition of Christian morality, Trump’s attempts to woo evangelicals have often seemed outsized. He was the first President to address the anti-abortion March for Life in Washington, he has posed for photographs with pastors laying their hands on him to pray and he has acknowledged that his decision to move the US Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem appeals specifically to Christians.
That was very much the case Tuesday, when Abby Johnson, a former Planned Parenthood worker who now opposes abortion, called Trump “the most pro-life President we’ve ever had” and delivered a forceful – and descriptive – account of her time at the clinic.
“For me, abortion’s real. I know what it sounds like, what it smells like. Did you know abortion had a smell?” she said.
There have been missteps, including Trump’s photo op outside a church across from the White House during protests. His awkward handling of a Bible was decried by many religious leaders as craven. At various points during his presidency, Trump has expressed concern to aides that support among evangelicals might be slipping.
But while his backing may have slid somewhat, a large majority of White evangelicals still support him – and their voices were prominent on Tuesday.
Cissie Graham Lynch, the granddaughter of famous evangelist Billy Graham, said Trump was “giving hope to people of faith around the world,” and she took swipes at pro-LGBTQ policies.
“Democrats pressured schools to allow boys to compete in girls’ sports and use girls’ locker rooms,” she claimed.
Unmentioned in all of it was the current scandal rocking evangelical circles: the dramatic downfall of Jerry Falwell Jr., who resigned as president of Liberty University on Tuesday after reports that he and his wife had taken part in a sexual relationship with a former hotel pool attendant.
The unprecedented appearance of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo at Trump’s convention – which aides say came at the President’s own request – is a clue to how Trump views his first-term foreign policy achievements.
Staged on a hotel rooftop in Jerusalem, Pompeo sought to cast Trump as the ultimate dealmaker, his location highlighting a recent agreement between Israel and the United Arab Emirates to normalize relations that Trump helped broker.
“The President lowered the temperature and, against all odds, got North Korean leadership to the table,” Pompeo said, despite a lack of tangible results in US-North Korea diplomacy on Trump’s watch.
Voters in the US consistently rank foreign policy near the bottom of their most important issues, though in a broader sense America’s role in the world and how allies now regard the United States have played heavily in Democrats’ messaging during this election.
Trump has mostly shrugged off suggestions that America is viewed as a less reliable partner, saying his goal isn’t to make life easier for either foreign friends or foes. While he claims to have great relationships with Western leaders, he has also appeared cozy with strongmen and dictators – including his praise for Turkey’s leader during a taped segment on Monday.
Ultimately, there are few experienced Republican national security voices outside the administration who have appeared willing to defend Trump’s policies. Many have said outright that they oppose them. And several of his onetime aides – including his former national security adviser John Bolton and his former Defense Secretary James Mattis – have raised serious questions about his decision-making.
That has given people once considered outside the foreign policy mainstream more clout. Sen. Rand Paul, a Kentucky Republican who has rankled his party’s leadership at times with anti-interventionist views, was invited to speak Tuesday to underscore his stance.
He said Trump aimed to “end war rather than start one” and refused to “leave our blood and treasure in Middle East quagmires.”
“Joe Biden will continue to spill our blood and treasure,” Paul said.
Republican convention planners determined early on that they wanted to highlight everyday Americans who they say have benefited from policies Trump put in place. Their goal has been to portray a leader focused squarely on improving people’s lives – even as many Americans now find themselves self-quarantined, out of work, unable to travel or suffering from the loss of loved ones.
Amid the baleful tone of Monday night’s programming, the helper-in-chief idea didn’t necessarily penetrate, but the efforts seemed more clear Tuesday with speeches from a Maine lobster fisherman, a Wisconsin dairy farmer and the owner of a metal fabrication business who says Trump’s new North American trade agreement has made his business more competitive.
“As long as Trump is President, fishing families like mine will have a voice,” said Jason Joyce, the lobsterman. “I strongly support President Trump’s reelection. When he sees something isn’t right, he’s fearless in fixing it. He listens to working people.”
Trump’s aides believe individual stories like that can help convince voters the President is looking out for them more broadly – and rebut accusations made by Democrats that he simply doesn’t care about the lives of ordinary Americans.
They also appear intent on highlighting success stories in key electoral battlegrounds such as Wisconsin and Maine.
Trump ran as a populist who insisted he would enact policies that benefit the so-called “forgotten” Americans who he claimed both parties had left behind. Once he entered office, however, his legislative agenda didn’t always reflect those promises – including passing massive corporate tax breaks.
Those haven’t been mentioned much during the convention so far. But Trump’s trade agreements have been front and center.
The President himself has framed the efforts in more starkly political terms. He has focused in particular on farmers, telling aides they are his “people” – in other words, they voted for him – and must be taken care of. In real terms, that has meant massive subsidies as farmers suffered the effects of a tit-for-tat tariff war with China.
The benefits to Americans from Trump’s China trade deal aren’t as clear-cut as the convention would make them seem. Earlier Tuesday, new data was released showing China’s purchases of goods from the United States remained at less than half the committed targets for the year up to July set out in Trump’s Phase One trade deal.
In private, Trump has been less enthusiastic about efforts that don’t seem to have an obvious political upside. That includes on criminal justice reform, an initiative spearheaded by his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, that Trump endorsed but has not made a central aspect of his reelection bid.
It will appear at moments during the convention, including on Tuesday when Trump pardoned Jon Ponder, who robbed a bank in Nevada and later founded an organization to help former inmates. Alice Johnson, the idea of whose pardon was brought to Trump by Kim Kardashian West, is also a scheduled speaker this week.