Prime-time pardon and Mike Pompeo speech highlight Donald Trump's control over GOP

Donald Trump has been trailing Biden by significant margins in national polls and in most of the key swing states. That has led some Republicans to warn the president that if he did not put considerable effort into changing voters’ minds about him then he was in danger of losing in November

The New York Times August 26, 2020 07:56:54 IST
Prime-time pardon and Mike Pompeo speech highlight Donald Trump's control over GOP

President Donald Trump’s unchallenged grip on the Republican Party and his fondness for pushing the boundaries of presidential politics were on vivid display on Tuesday, with the second night of his party’s convention unfolding as a showy pageant led by Trump’s family members and featuring segments that leveraged government resources for the benefit of his campaign.

By the end of the night, Trump had issued a pardon for a Nevada man convicted in a 2004 bank robbery, using one of his unrestricted presidential powers in a nearly Roman display of executive mercy. The country’s top diplomat, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, was to give a speech promoting Trump’s candidacy from the roof of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, flouting a norm that Department of State officials shun electoral politics.

And three members of Trump’s family — his wife, Melania, and two of his children, Eric and Tiffany — were to address the conference, with the first lady speaking from a redesigned White House Rose Garden. Their remarks would further infuse the gathering of a 166-year-old political party with an atmosphere of dynastic ambition, after Trump’s eldest son, Donald Trump Jr, and his girlfriend, Kimberly Guilfoyle, both spoke in prime time Monday night. Trump’s daughter Ivanka will introduce him on Thursday night when he accepts the party’s nomination.

Had there been any doubt about the dimensions of Trump’s political persona, the first two nights of the Republican convention would have dispensed with it. Pompeo’s appearance, the pardon and the parade of family members who would pay tribute to the president were stark reminders of Trump’s ability to impose his will on the party’s signature event of the election cycle.

Still, it was not clear from the early stages of the convention that the party had a plan for appealing to voters outside Trump’s core political coalition.

There have been nods to voters of colour with a diverse array of speakers, but in large measure the theory of the convention so far has seemed to be that by firing up conservative voters and scaring a sizeable slice of moderates with attacks on the Democratic Party, Trump could once again score with a narrow victory.

Yet by organising the whole convention around Trump as a protagonist — and by appropriating the powers and privileges of the presidency for partisan purposes — Republicans also risked underscoring the political vulnerabilities of a man whose unpopularity has stemmed from many voters’ perception that he is egotistic, dishonest and disrespectful of his office.

The political message that defined the programme on Monday appeared nearly certain to remain intact: Giving a full-throated and heavily embellished defence of Trump’s governing record; largely ignoring or minimising the ravages of the coronavirus pandemic; and branding Democrats as an ideologically radical party that would usher in an age of economic repression and urban warfare.

The combination of personal tributes and slashing attacks planned for Tuesday reflected the duality of both the convention and Trump’s Republican Party.

There was still a place for convention staples — family members, real-life stories and up-and-coming party figures. But figures like Governor Kim Reynolds of Iowa, the first female governor of her Midwestern swing state, who spoke Tuesday night, must fully embrace a polarising president as a close ally and appear on the same stage, or at least in the same programme, with conservative provocateurs.

Much like the first night, the presentations on Tuesday veered between trumpeting Trump’s law-and-order mantra and promoting his support for some criminal justice reforms. The recipient of Trump’s pardon was Jon Ponder, who served time for several crimes including bank robbery, two people briefed on the plans said. Ponder, who previously appeared with Trump at a White House event in 2018, had already been granted clemency by a Nevada board for state-level crimes. After his release, he founded an organisation to help former prisoners reenter society.

It is unclear whether this approach will appeal to voters who are not already backing Trump in his race against Joe Biden, the Democratic nominee, or whether it is likelier to fire up Trump’s core supporters without broadening his appeal. The early television ratings released for the Monday programming showed that the convention had drawn a smaller audience — about 15.8 million from 10 pm to 11 pm, according to Nielsen — than the equivalent night of the Democratic convention last week (roughly 19 million), and that a huge share of the viewership had been concentrated on the conservative-leaning Fox News.

Events overnight on Monday might further stoke Republicans’ message that Democrats would preside over a total breakdown of domestic security. In the Wisconsin suburb of Kenosha, protests erupted in violence and arson after a White police officer shot Jacob Blake, a Black man, in the back in an encounter on Sunday that was captured on video. Such scenes of destruction in a crucial swing state could play into Trump’s hands, even as polls show most voters disapprove of how the president has handled race relations and matters of law enforcement.

Wisconsin’s governor, Tony Evers, a Democrat, called the state legislature into a special session after the shooting of Blake, pushing lawmakers to enact new measures governing police tactics, training and transparency. The body, controlled by Republicans, has typically resisted Evers’ proposals, raising the prospect that an extended clash over policing could dominate politics in the closely divided state through the November election.

Trump has consistently campaigned as a champion of the police, and he has threatened drastic action against demonstrators whom he judges to be unruly. He has falsely claimed that Biden, the former vice-president, favours defunding the police. The president has collected an array of endorsements over the past month from police unions and projected a campaign message plainly aimed at inflaming the fears and racial grievances of White voters, particularly those in the suburbs who have tended to oppose him.

On Tuesday, before the second night of the convention got underway, the president announced his decision to appoint Chad F Wolf as the secretary of homeland security. As the acting secretary, Wolf has been the face of the attempted federal crackdown on cities where protests have turned violent, notably Portland, Oregon.

Democrats have largely ignored the vandalism linked to the unrest, and Tuesday they kept hammering Trump on his response to the coronavirus crisis, the issue on which they believe he is most vulnerable.

“We haven’t even regained half of the jobs lost during the pandemic,” said Governor Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan. “The economy has lost more than six million jobs since Trump took the wheel, including more than 250,000 factory jobs.”

During the first night of the convention Monday, Republicans made caustic characterisations of demonstrators and issued warnings about the risks of electing Democrats who would empower them. The admonitions came from both Republican lawmakers and more obscure personalities, like Mark and Patricia McCloskey, the St Louis couple who face felony charges after brandishing guns at peaceful protesters in their neighbourhood this summer.

Several law enforcement officials were scheduled to speak Tuesday, including Kentucky’s attorney-general, Daniel Cameron, who is the first Black man elected to statewide office there, and Pam Bondi, the former attorney-general of Florida, who has been a loyal Trump surrogate for years.

Pompeo’s appearance from Israel drew the most attention heading into the evening. Trump has made his support for Israel a major selling point of his candidacy, though he has acknowledged that some steps — like relocating the US Embassy to Jerusalem — have earned him more goodwill with conservative evangelical voters than with American Jews.

Based on his choice of venue, Pompeo seemed certain to make Trump’s record of unflagging support for Israel and its right-wing prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, a theme of his comments. But the secretary of state was also positioned to speak more broadly about Trump’s approach to the world, and to lay out the case that his confrontational America-first ethos had yielded positive results.

Pompeo’s appearance could serve as something of a rebuttal to the Democratic convention, during which numerous speakers accused Trump of demolishing the global stature of the United States and imperilling American national security.

Like a number of the speakers on Monday — most notably former United Nations ambassador, Nikki R Haley — Pompeo was expected to portray Trump the way the president sees himself, as a muscular defender of the nation’s interest abroad.

Every political party, of course, minimises or ignores the blemishes of their standard-bearer at nominating conventions. In Trump’s case, though, that requires substantially more work, given his tendency to act in ways that sometimes trouble traditional Republicans.

So Haley and Pompeo, both foreign policy hawks who are considering presidential bids of their own in 2024, largely ignored in their remarks the president’s relentless courtship of authoritarian leaders. They painted him as a resolute and bold leader but averted their gaze, for example, from Trump’s assertion that he and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un “fell in love”.

Despite the plethora of Republicans hoping to run in the future, there were few Republicans on the program who are running in competitive elections this fall: While conventions are typically used to build the strength of an entire party, making a case for its down-ballot candidates and giving valuable exposure to lesser-known officials, this one has been organised more as a personal tribute to Trump.

There have been only a few gestures of outreach to the political middle. And the sunny forecasts by several Trump advisors, who promised over the weekend that their party’s convention would be more upbeat than the one the Democrats put on, have not panned out.

Trump has been trailing Biden by significant margins in national polls and in most of the key swing states. That has led some Republicans to warn the president that if he did not put considerable effort into changing voters’ minds about him then he was in danger of losing in November.

As on Monday night, the convention appeared set to feature speeches by ordinary Americans who support Trump, as well as a heavy dose of conservative grievance.

Among the speakers announced by convention organisers was Nicholas Sandmann, the Kentucky teenager who last year sued multiple news media outlets, including The New York Times, for allegedly misrepresenting an encounter between him and a Native American protester during duelling demonstrations on the National Mall.

Alexander Burns and Jonathan Martin c.2020 The New York Times Company

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