Written by Jonathan Martin, Alexander Burns and Annie Karni
President Donald Trump and his political allies mounted a fierce and deeply misleading defense of his political record on the first night of the Republican convention on Monday, while unleashing a barrage of attacks on Joe Biden and the Democratic Party that were unrelenting in their bleakness.
Hours after Republican delegates formally nominated Trump for a second term, the president and his party made plain that they intended to engage in sweeping revisionism about Trump’s management of the coronavirus pandemic, his record on race relations and much else. And they laid out a dystopian picture of what the United States would look like under a Biden administration, warning of a “vengeful mob” that would lay waste to suburban communities and turn quiet neighborhoods into war zones.
At times, the speakers and prerecorded videos appeared to be describing an alternate reality: one in which the nation was not nearing 180,000 deaths from the coronavirus; in which Trump had not consistently ignored serious warnings about the disease; in which the president had not spent much of his term appealing openly to xenophobia and racial animus; and in which someone other than Trump had presided over an economy that began crumbling in the spring.
Donald Trump Jr., the president’s son, praised his father’s management of the pandemic, one of several segments asserting an unsupported narrative that the president had been a sturdy leader in a crisis even as polls show Americans believe he has handled the pandemic poorly.
“As the virus began to spread, the president acted quickly and ensured ventilators got to hospitals that needed them most,” the president’s son said, making no mention of the millions of Americans sickened and killed or the complaints from governors that they were not receiving the necessary equipment. “There is more work to do, but there is light at the end of the tunnel.”
It was part of a vehement address the younger Trump delivered that framed the election as a choice between “church, work and school” and “rioting, looting and vandalism.”
The scorched-earth approach and knowing references to phrases like “cancel culture” would not have been out of place during a Fox News prime-time segment. By that measure, the arguments might help lure some wavering Republicans, uneasy with the president’s handling of the virus, back to Trump. But it was far from clear that the programming would appeal to any undecided voters.
The Republicans’ message veered wildly, sometimes between consecutive speakers. State Rep. Vernon Jones of Georgia, a Democrat who has endorsed Trump, trumpeted the president’s support for police reforms, for instance, while other Black speakers appealed directly to minority voters. Minutes later, a St. Louis couple, Mark and Patricia McCloskey, who recently drew wide attention in the news media for brandishing firearms at peaceful Black protesters in their neighborhood, turned to barely veiled racial rhetoric.
“Your family will not be safe in the radical Democrats’ America,” said Patricia McCloskey, sitting with her husband in their home, warning that Biden, the Democratic nominee, wanted to “abolish the suburbs.”
The couple was followed by Kimberly Guilfoyle, a former Fox News host who is now a campaign fundraiser. “Rioters must not be allowed to destroy our cities” she said, before abruptly changing her tone and smiling broadly. “The best is to come,” she said, her voice rising to a shout.
Hours earlier, Trump appeared before delegates in Charlotte, North Carolina, the initial planned site of the convention, after they conducted a roll-call vote to formally nominate him for a second term. The president promoted the economy while blistering Biden, former President Barack Obama and North Carolina’s governor, a Democrat who he claimed had sabotaged the Republican convention for political purposes.
Trump offered his remarks to a crowd that frequently broke into applause, a feature that was noticeably absent from the Democratic convention last week, which was conducted entirely online. The Republicans have made their decision to hold an in-person convention a political statement in itself.
Trump’s stew of false claims, hyperbole and invective in Charlotte dismayed some Republicans, who were hoping he and the party would use this week to stick to more scripted attacks on Biden as a tool of the left. But most Republicans recognized heading into the week that the convention would be Trump’s show and that there was little chance of redirecting his energies.
Trump is planning on speaking each day during the four-day convention, and party officials scrambled over the weekend to fill in the schedule. It seemed inevitable, though, that the president would overwhelm his own convention, given his television-honed obsession with stagecraft and his total control of the Republican Party.
Just hours after the roll-call vote, Trump was confronted with a new embarrassment when a sex scandal ensnaring Jerry Falwell Jr., the president of Liberty University and a close ally, forced Falwell to the brink of departing from the Baptist college his father founded.
Though several Trump advisers had promised an upbeat convention, the evening program was bleak from the early stages, as a sequence of Trump supporters spoke in Washington, D.C., from a dais in Andrew W. Mellon Auditorium, a formal, a wood-paneled event space with towering pillars that gave the event something of the atmosphere of a memorial service.
In that setting, Charlie Kirk, a right-wing youth activist, warned of the advance of “bitter, vengeful, deceitful activists,” while Rebecca Friedrichs, a school-choice activist from California, claimed that teachers’ unions had “morphed our schools into war zones.” A defense of Trump’s management of the coronavirus pandemic took the form of a video that criticized the news media, Democrats and the World Health Organization, and presented a greatly distorted version of Trump’s record, casting him as a decisive leader against Democrats who minimized the threat of the disease. The video featured three clips of Democratic governors, including Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York, praising Trump in the spring, when state executives were pleading with the federal government for help and taking exceptional pains to stay on the president’s good side.
Trump’s first appearance in the evening program came in a brief segment that showed him at the White House interacting with front-line workers, who related their experiences in the health crisis as they stood in a semicircle. Trump largely deferred to the other speakers and prompted them to make comments — “Please, go ahead,” he said repeatedly — though he interjected his own commentary about the drug hydroxychloroquine, which the president had promoted aggressively as a remedy for the coronavirus despite no consensus among doctors that it was effective.
Amy Ford, a nurse from West Virginia, spoke of working on the front lines during the pandemic and credited the president’s leadership with saving lives, despite the extensive evidence that Trump had defied public health experts by playing down the threat of the virus and by opposing some of the most effective measures to control it.
“As a health care professional, I can tell you without hesitation Donald Trump’s quick action and leadership saved thousands of lives during COVID-19,” Ford said, though for much of her brief speech she focused on the benefits of telemedicine.
The speakers Monday night reflected a Trumpified Republican Party. A few of the president’s allies in Congress, including Reps. Jim Jordan of Ohio and Steve Scalise of Louisiana, delivered remarks. A handful of participants representing the Republican Party’s scant racial diversity spoke later in the evening, among them Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, the only Black Republican in the Senate, and the former United Nations ambassador, Nikki R. Haley, who is Indian American.
But much of the program, including the appearances by Kirk and the McCloskeys, appeared aimed at antagonizing the left and issuing stark warnings about civil disorder.
Former football star Herschel Walker, who identified himself as a longtime friend of Trump’s, pushed back on what he called unfair depictions of the president as a racist — a sign, perhaps, of Republicans’ concerns that a wide range of voters see Trump in those terms, including a sizable number of whites.
“I take it as a personal insult that people would think I would have a 37-year friendship with a racist,” said Walker, who is Black. “People who think that don’t know what they are talking about.”
In her remarks, Haley depicted Trump as a stern champion of American interests against an unfriendly international order, and attacked Biden and the Obama administration’s handling of adversaries like North Korea and Iran. Of Trump, she said, “He tells the world what it needs to hear.”
Underscoring Republicans’ determination to run against the left wing of the Democratic Party, rather than Trump’s decidedly moderate challenger, Haley warned that if Biden were elected, he would report to “Pelosi, Sanders and the squad,” employing a widely used nickname for four progressive women of color in the House.
Her remarks were as much the first volley in her widely expected 2024 presidential bid as they were a case for Trump’s reelection. She spoke about her childhood in South Carolina as “a brown girl in a Black and white world,” promoted her state’s economic gains when she was governor there and recalled her decision to remove the Confederate flag from the grounds of the State House, referring to the banner only as “a divisive symbol.”
Scott gave perhaps the most carefully crafted speech of the evening, recounting his ascent as a Black Southerner to deliver an optimistic assessment of America’s promise and to ridicule Biden for his clumsy references to race.
Much as the Democrats sought to do last week with their parade of Republicans at Biden’s convention, GOP officials were hoping that the presence of people of color would provide something of a permission structure for centrist voters to back Trump.
At the start of the program’s final hour, Trump appeared in a video with several people who were held as hostages or prisoners overseas until his administration negotiated their release, and who praised the efforts of his team. Trump spoke briefly with them in turn, generating at least one dissonant moment in which he told Andrew Brunson, a pastor who was jailed in Turkey, that the country’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, had been “very good” to deal with.
One revealing aspect of the convention was the organizers’ decision not to release a party platform. Platform documents are typically toothless, and few delegates even read them. But that Republicans would skip the process entirely illustrates the degree to which their identity is shaped more by Trump, and his critics, than by any set of policy proposals.
The degree to which Trump has reshaped the Republican Party in his own image was on display even in the Democratic Party’s counterprogramming on Monday. Biden’s campaign used the start of the convention to release a list of Republican dissenters and outcasts who are opposing Trump’s reelection and backing the former vice president as a suitable alternative.
The most prominent new name on the list, which heavily featured long-retired lawmakers with little to lose through their dissent, was former Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona. Flake, a 57-year-old conservative, was pushed into retirement after just one term because his persistent criticism of Trump enraged Republican voters.
On Monday in Charlotte, where only party business was being conducted, Trump used his speech to focus on the strength of the stock market and to hurl all manner of attacks at Democrats.
He repeated his unfounded allegations that Obama and Biden had spied on his campaign in 2016. “We caught them doing really bad things,” he said. “Let’s see what happens. They’re trying it again.”
The president also continued his monthslong assault on voting by mail and repeated unfounded accusations that it was part of a plot by Democrats to hand the election to Biden.