WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump on Thursday abruptly canceled the Republican National Convention celebrations scheduled for next month in Jacksonville, Fla., making the latest in a series of head-snapping reversals in the face of a nationwide pandemic that continues to spread out of control.
Trump has for months instructed his advisers to find a way to stage a loud, boisterous and packed convention celebration, after North Carolina officials said they could not guarantee such an event in Charlotte. Advisers scoured the country for a new location to host a multi-night televised spectacle, settling on Jacksonville, where the mayor and Florida’s governor are Trump’s allies.
The president’s ambition, however, ran headlong into a massive spike in coronavirus cases in Florida, growing local opposition and enormous logistical hurdles. At one point, convention planners announced they would administer daily coronavirus tests to thousands of delegates, donors and members of the media to help reduce the viral risk. That plan was later scrapped to move large portions of the celebrations to an outdoor venue.
The convention retreat came as polls continue to show public disapproval of Trump’s handling of the pandemic, with presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden expanding leads in key battleground states and advisers pressing Trump to try to shift gears.
In the past week, Trump has abandoned his longtime refusal to wear a mask or enthusiastically promote their use, stopped pushing for public mass campaign gatherings and acknowledged for the first time in months that the pandemic is likely to get worse before it gets better. Trump also acknowledged Thursday that some schools might have to delay reopening.
On his retreat from holding a splashy convention in Jacksonville, Trump said that he had been presented with the latest plans Thursday afternoon, a day before the Jacksonville City Council was scheduled to begin debating legislation to authorize the event. He said he made the decision to call it off.
“I looked at my team, and I said the timing for this event is not right, just not right with what’s happened recently. The flare-up in Florida to have a big convention is not the right time,” Trump said. “It’s really something that for me, I have to protect the American people. That’s what I’ve always done. That’s what I always will do. That’s what I’m about.”
For much of the summer, Trump has denied the danger of large gatherings, arguing that the viral threat was receding while accusing Democrats of “purposely” keeping their states closed for political advantage. He spent June and early July gathering crowds of thousands in Oklahoma, Arizona and North Dakota over the objections of public health officials who warned the events presented the “highest risk” for spreading the virus. He also mocked Democrats for signaling early that they would cut back on their convention festivities to match public health guidance.
“Now he wants a “Virtual” Convention, one where he doesn’t have to show up. Gee, I wonder why?” Trump wrote about Biden in an April tweet.
Democrats are planning a four-day convention in August that will be anchored in Milwaukee, with simulcasts from satellite locations across the country and prerecorded video. Delegates and party officials have been told to stay home, and the in-person crowd for major speeches, including Biden’s acceptance of the nomination, is expected to be small.
Trump advisers have repeatedly argued to him in recent days that a more cautious approach is likely to boost his popularity. Canceling the convention, they said, would also show he is taking the virus seriously.
Trump said Thursday that he will still give an acceptance speech in some form, but it will not be before the thousands of people that Trump said “desperately” wanted to attend and were already making travel arrangements. The formal nominating process, scheduled to take place in Charlotte with about 300 Republican officials, will proceed as planned.
Republican planners had already concluded that a packed, indoor arena would not be possible over several consecutive nights, given the high caseload in northern Florida. Some White House and campaign officials were fearful of the negative press if delegates and others were infected with the virus at the convention, two officials said.
They also came to the conclusion that they would probably have to use the National Guard to protect the convention from protests and allow for distancing in the crowd. The president, advisers said, was less than enthusiastic about an arena or stadium that appeared less than full.
Brian Ballard, the Washington and Florida lobbyist leading the fundraising effort for Jacksonville, had meetings about the convention as recently as Wednesday, said a person familiar with the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe internal deliberations. The budget was going to be between $10 million and $20 million, the person said, and organizers thought they were going to have the money to fund it.
“He made the right choice. It was a hard call, but it was the right call,” Ballard said.
Trump spoke Thursday afternoon with Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel, White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, recently installed campaign manager Bill Stepien and others.
Some people involved in the planning were informed about an hour before Trump made his announcement. Allies and aides were encouraged to praise Trump for the decision, just as they did for wearing a mask, even as the same people were told to praise the opposite position though it looked inevitable he would have to change it.
Local opposition to the convention has, at the same time, been rising. A Quinnipiac University poll released Thursday found 62 percent of Florida voters opposed holding the convention. Sheriff Mike Williams announced this week that he did not have the resources to provide adequate security for the event.
“At this point, we’re simply past the point of no return to execute the event safely,” Williams said Monday at a news conference.
The City Council presented yet another obstacle to the Republican plans. Just minutes before Trump’s announcement, the Republican Party of Duval County sent an email asking party members to “call your councilmember and tell them to support” the convention.
City leaders had released a draft bill this week laying out must-pass legislation to waive zoning restrictions and authorize the mayor to spend $33 million in federal funds for the event. The draft legislation also eased alcohol laws to allow convention-goers to carry open containers outside and purchase drinks until 4 a.m., even though bars in the state remain closed as a result of viral spread.
The bill, which did not directly address concerns over coronavirus spread, was set to be debated Friday morning by the city council. The panel was to take testimony from Williams and Republican officials. The emergency legislation needed to pass the council by a two-thirds margin, said council Chair Tommy Hazouri, a Democrat. With only six Democrats on the 19-member body, Republicans had the ability to pass the bill on a party-line vote.
“I think Republicans and Democrats alike won on this one,” Hazouri said about Trump’s decision to cancel the event. “The legislation we had required a lot of answers and a lot of holes to fill, and I don’t think anyone was prepared to give those answers.”
After the president announced his decision, the Duval County Republican Party released a new statement praising Trump for putting “the safety and security of our citizens above all else.” The group pledged to recommit the thousands of volunteers they had recruited for the convention to help Trump’s reelection effort.
In his news conference Thursday, Trump also noted the bad press he’d receive if he went forward with the convention while the coronavirus outbreak was still surging across the country.
“I could see the media saying, ‘Oh, this is very unsafe.’ I don’t want to be in that position,” Trump said. “It’s safety, not because of the media. But that’s what they would say. And we’ll have a very nice something. We’ll figure it out. It’ll be online in some form.”
Officials said they are looking at virtual and digital programming and possibly having a stage somewhere, without the convention-size crowd.