WASHINGTON — The White House was the star of the second night of the Republican National Convention as President Donald Trump’s campaign trampled norms against using “The People’s House” for campaign politics to cast it as the backdrop for first lady Melania Trump’s keynote address.
Three of Trump’s relatives spoke at the convention, which highlighted Trump’s work on criminal justice reform, in contrast with his frequent warnings about crime, while largely ignoring the coronavirus crisis.
Here are six takeaways.
1. COVID? What COVID?
For the second night in a row, you could be forgiven for watching the convention and having no idea a worldwide pandemic was raging. The COVID-19 crisis, which voters say is the most important issue facing the country right now, almost never came up Tuesday.
Larry Kudlow, one of the president’s top economic advisers, spoke about the pandemic in the past tense. “It was awful. Health and economic impacts were tragic,” he said, even as the virus continues to kill over a thousand people a day in the U.S. on average.
Instead, Kudlow and other speakers focused on the economy, touting rosy jobs numbers and soaring stock prices before the COVID-19 crash, suggesting that things will pop back quickly thanks to their businessman president.
2. Melania’s moment
She sounded like the first lady of a different administration. It was a remarkably traditional speech for a remarkably untraditional time.
Melania Trump opened by offering condolences to people who have lost loved ones to the coronavirus crisis, notably referring to it as COVID and COVID-19, not the “China virus,” as her husband does. She also told stories of people she has met on her domestic and foreign travels. She discussed her anti-bullying agenda. And she reflected on racial unrest, conceding in a very un-Trump way, “We are not proud of parts of our history.”
“I don’t want to use this precious time to attack the other side,” she said, “because as we saw last week, that kind of talk only serves to divide the country further.”
The first lady rarely gives big speeches — her last one to the Republican convention in 2016 was marred by the lines she cribbed from Michelle Obama — but Tuesday’s address was warm, empathetic and uplifting, if a bit paint-by-numbers. It just seemed to have little to do with the reality of Trump’s administration.
It wasn’t just Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaking to the convention from Jerusalem, in defiance of the precedent set by his predecessors and seemingly of his own department’s ethics policy. It wasn’t just Melania Trump speaking from the Rose Garden. And it wasn’t just Trump casting the White House Marine guards as extras in a segment of the convention, despite Pentagon rules.
All of that happened Tuesday night, but Trump did more than use his taxpayer-funded office and residence as a backdrop. He employed the official powers of the presidency for partisan politics, first by granting a pardon, then by hosting a naturalization ceremony at the White House, all part of his televised GOP convention.
4. Dynasty watch
Former Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi revived questionable allegations of nepotism against Joe Biden and his son Hunter.
But Trump’s own relatives — several of whom are on his payroll — were front and center Tuesday. A video highlighting the women Trump has empowered included his daughter Ivanka; his wife, Melania; his daughter-in-law, Lara; and his son Eric’s girlfriend, Kimberly Guilfoyle.
Eric and daughter Tiffany spoke in addition to Melania on Tuesday, while Guilfoyle and Donald Trump Jr. spoke Monday.
It raises the question not just of whether the future of the Republican Party belongs to the Trumps or to the Nikki Haleys and the Tim Scotts, Republicans of color spoke who Monday at the convention, but also of which flavor of Trumpism. The pugnacious own-the-libs style of Eric and Don Jr.? Or the softer style of Ivanka and Melania?
5. Tough on crime vs. reform?
Trump and other Republicans often warn that if Democrats win, they’ll defund the police and cities will be awash with riotous mobs and dangerous criminals.
Trump sought to round out that image Tuesday.
Multiple segments highlighted the First Step Act, a criminal justice reform law that is one of Trump’s biggest legislative achievements. He granted a pardon Tuesday to a convicted bank robber. And a video highlighted the touching story of a police officer who adopted the daughter of a pregnant heroin addict.
Referring to Biden, Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron, a rising star in the GOP, said: “Mr. Vice President, look at me. I am Black. We are not all the same. I’m not in chains. My mind is my own.”
The messages may be aimed more at on-the-fence Republicans than at people of color, with Trump trying to make them feel comfortable voting for a man whom many critics call a racist.
But an anti-abortion activist was allowed to speak even after spending much of the evening defending her opinion that only the head of a household, usually a husband, should be allowed to vote. “In a godly household,” she said, “the husband would get the final say.”