A cascade of outside crises – a dangerous impending hurricane, racial unrest in Wisconsin – lurked in the background of the third night of President Donald Trump’s convention which sought to project a sense of command.
If Tuesday’s legally dubious use of his official powers illustrated the advantages afforded an incumbent, the events requiring presidential leadership that swirled Wednesday underscored its burdens.
Almost the entirety of Wednesday’s program was taped ahead of time, which prevented addressing the two crises in real time. And a fair portion of the evening was devoted to testimonies from top female aides portraying a thoughtful, caring boss in Trump, who has struggled winning over women voters particularly of late.
When it came time for the sole live address of the night – from Vice President Mike Pence – the crises received a mention amid an otherwise lashing attack on Joe Biden. But by and large, the convention largely moved on without acknowledging them.
Emergency leadership factors into any president’s re-election, but Trump is under particular pressure to demonstrate his ability to manage a crisis. His handling of the coronavirus pandemic has gained wide disapproval; another national emergency is an opportunity to reverse the impression he’s an ineffective leader.
As it happens, the coronavirus pandemic also went mostly unmentioned on Wednesday until Pence spoke, a progression that saw it play a prominent – if misleading – role on Monday, fade from view on Tuesday and almost entirely disappear by Wednesday until Pence spoke.
When he did, he offered a bold promise: “We’re on track to have the world’s first safe, effective coronavirus vaccine by the end of this year.”
Here are five takeaways from the third night of the Republican National Convention:
Trump and women
He may come off like a bully when insults women’s looks or – as he did with the Democratic running mate – call them crazed, but a roster of female White House advisers hoped to convey a different side of Trump on Wednesday.
In a deeply personal speech, Kayleigh McEnany, his fourth press secretary, recounted Trump’s support when she underwent a preventative double mastectomy – including in a phone call when she was recovering.
“I was blown away,” she said. “Here was the leader of the free world caring about me.”
Kellyanne Conway, the outgoing presidential counselor, has said her recent decision to leave the White House to focus on her family was made with Trump’s full backing. She said Wednesday that Trump was a champion of women.
“He confides in and consults us, respects our opinions, and insists that we are on equal footing with the men,” she said.
It’s a side of Trump many of his aides have long insisted is there in private: the man who cares for his employees, gives women a boost in the workplace and generally is aware of the challenges they confront.
But it’s one that is rarely evident in public. And Trump’s political advisers have watched with increasing concern as polls showed his support among women – and specifically White women – sliding. Trump has scrambled to make amends, including targeting women in his efforts to roll back anti-segregation rules.
But the President’s aides have said privately he must do more. Women voters have rated him poorly on his handling of coronavirus and give him poor marks for his divisive behavior and rhetoric.
Crisis? What Crisis?
As Wednesday’s convention programming commenced, a crisis was brewing in the upper Midwest following the police shooting of Jacob Blake, a Black man, in Kenosha, Wisconsin. The evening’s other major television draw – NBA playoff games – was scrapped when players boycotted in protest of Blake’s shooting (Trump has lambasted professional athletes who protest racial injustice).
But the convention proceeded apace. The situation in Wisconsin did not arise specifically until Pence addressed the convention from Baltimore. And even then, they were framed as an attack on Biden.
“Last week, Joe Biden didn’t say one word about the violence and chaos engulfing cities across this country,” he said. “The violence must stop – whether in Minneapolis, Portland, or Kenosha. Too many heroes have died defending our freedoms to see Americans strike each other down. We will have law and order on the streets of America for every American for every race and creed and color.”
Later, he went after Biden for acknowledging systemic racism in America’s police departments.
“Joe Biden would double down on the very policies that are leading to unsafe streets and violence in America’s cities,” he said – a somewhat convoluted argument given the violence currently underway is happening under Trump’s watch.
The events in Kenosha provide an unsettling backdrop for Trump’s convention. The unrest fit conveniently into the ongoing pro-law enforcement messages of this week’s convention, including on Wednesday when a man whose wife was murdered and the president of the National Association of Police Organizations spoke, who said the Democrats represented the “most radical anti-police ticket in history.”
But they also lay bare the consequences of Trump’s actions and provide another stark reminder of how Trump has stoked racial divisions during his presidency. Two featured convention speakers on Monday, Mark and Patricia McCloskey, became famous for armed vigilantism in the face of protests; in the hours before Wednesday’s convention kicked off, a 17-year-old Wisconsin resident was charged in a shooting incident that left two protesters dead.
The suspect had posted a short video from the Trump rally at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, on one of his TikTok accounts.
So far, Republicans have offered something of a mixed message on the ongoing national racial reckoning during their event – a muddle that continued Wednesday.
While a parade of speakers touted Trump’s “law and order” credentials, another category of speakers – including civil rights activist Clarence Henderson and Black Voices for Trump leader Jack Brewer – sought to paint Trump as highly attuned to the issues confronting Black Americans, including harsh prison sentences.
Those are not necessarily conflicting ideas. But Trump himself has painted them as such by siding overwhelming with police. Instead of sentencing reform, he has advocated for 10-year prison terms for defacing federal memorials.
The efforts at reversing the impression that Trump is racist have amounted to one of the convention’s most discernible themes. Trump has repeatedly said he has done more for African Americans than any previous president, but polls still show Black voters overwhelmingly supporting his rival.
In reality, the effort is about more than peeling off support among Black voters – and in particular Black men, who have been featured prominently.
Instead, aides say that having Black voices vouching for Trump is designed, in part, to appeal to White voters who themselves have been turned off by his racist rhetoric and attempts to stoke racial divides.
At the same time, another emergency is looming in the Gulf of Mexico. Hurricane Laura is set to make landfall overnight as a Category 4 storm.
White House officials say Trump is monitoring the storm closely, though it did not play a significant role during Wednesday’s mostly taped convention.
The first mention came more than 90 minutes into the program, when Trump’s daughter-in-law Lara Trump said “May God bless the Gulf states in the path of the hurricane.”
Pence also encouraged those in the path of the storm to “stay safe and know that we’ll be with you every step of the way to support, rescue, response, and recovery in the days and weeks ahead.”
Aides have not suggested yet whether Trump would alter his convention plans due to the storm – unlike the 2008 and 2012 Republican National Conventions, which were both truncated because of hurricanes. Trump tweeted a photo on Wednesday from an Oval Office storm briefing.
Trump has always shown greater willingness to appear engaged when disasters strike states that voted for him – and the storm is tracking toward Louisiana and Texas.
Depending on the severity of the storm’s damage, Trump risks appearing detached if he proceeds with his convention speech as planned on Thursday evening. At some point he will face a decision on how and whether to alter the acceptance address; two officials acknowledged they will have to determine how to address the storm amid the convention, depending on what damage it inflicts when it makes landfall. But they said moving the speech is not currently in the cards.
Trump as he wants to be seen
Uniform through-lines have sometimes been hard to detect at this week’s convention, which has veered between fatalistic warnings about Democrats, denial about coronavirus and general economic optimism.
One consistent, however: every speaker has offered a view of the President that, no matter how divorced from reality, is the view he’s always wanted to see depicted on television.
Trump’s self-produced television show – with his own editors and himself as the casting director – has achieved what the President otherwise cannot, despite complaints about media coverage and venting sessions to aides.
Of course, the convention speakers and slickly produced videos have sanded off all of Trump’s flaws. In videos shot inside the White House of Trump greeting frontline workers, former American hostages, pardoned inmates and new US citizens, deft editing is employed to avoid the impression – often present when watching Trump live – that he struggles to remain on topic.
The angry outbursts and questionable information that are a hallmark of his news conferences and other media encounters are gone. Speakers describe a President who did not ignore the coronavirus pandemic, has not stoked racial tensions and generally acts like a different president than the one seen on television every day.
Pence, who acknowledged Trump has “certainly kept things interesting,” insisted he’s seen a different side.
“I’ve worked closely with our President. I’ve seen him when the cameras are off,” he said.
Others insisted Trump had developed friendships with countries where US alliances have been strained.
“I’ve watched Donald Trump charm the Chancellor of Germany,” Trump’s former ambassador in Berlin, Richard Grenell, said – a bold claim for arguably the most powerful woman in in the world.
If the claim stretched credulity, it was nonetheless exactly the person Trump wants to be.