Democrats set a high bar last week for the pandemic-era political convention, dispensing with cheering crowds in favor of a virtual pageant that encompassed passionate speeches, a charming cross-country roll call vote, vignettes from an Oscar-winning filmmaker and a low-fi fireworks display above a parking lot. A few hiccups aside, even jaded network executives conceded the party mostly pulled it off.
Now it’s the Republicans’ turn in the prime-time spotlight — and the party led by a former reality TV star is rushing to measure up.
After scrapping plans for a full-bore, in-person spectacle in Charlotte, North Carolina, and Jacksonville, Florida, because of the coronavirus crisis, Republicans are working to finalize a week’s worth of events that can match the production put on for the Democratic nominee, former Vice President Joe Biden, while meeting the exacting — and frequently shifting — standards of President Donald Trump.
Two producers of “The Apprentice,” where Trump rose to TV stardom, are involved in the planning. Sadoux Kim, a longtime deputy to “Apprentice” creator Mark Burnett, is a lead consultant on the production. Kim once served as a Miss Universe judge when Trump owned the pageant. Chuck LaBella, a former NBC entertainment executive who helped produce “The Comedy Central Roast of Donald Trump,” is also on the payroll.
Party officials say their convention — during which Trump is expected to speak every night in the 10 p.m. hour — will ultimately surpass the Democrats’ telethon-like show, which the president and his allies have repeatedly called “dark,” depressing and thin on policy proposals. “We’re going to have more of it live than what they did,” Trump told Fox News on Thursday. “I think it’s pretty boring when you do tapes.”
Exactly what that looks like remains an open question.
As Monday’s kickoff looms, Republican officials were still deciding what segments to air live and what would be taped in advance. Typically, convention broadcasts require weeks of highly technical preparation. By the weekend, producers at the major TV networks had only a foggy idea of what to expect, although Republicans provided a more detailed rundown Saturday evening. Still, broadcasters will head into the week with some unknowns.
“We’re treating this as breaking news,” Steve Scully, the political editor at C-SPAN, said in an interview. “Once we know who’s speaking where and when, we’ll send cameras.”
Republicans involved in the planning admit that anxiety began to set in two weeks ago. But on Saturday, they said that they were now confident that a fully realized lineup was in place — and that in contrast to the Democrats’ virtual event, voters could expect something more akin to a regular convention, with a focus on live onstage moments featuring Trump, whom aides described as the week’s “talent in chief.”
Typically, the nominee makes a mundane appearance early in the convention — waving or watching from the wings — before a major speech at the end. Trump has dismissed that model and plans to directly address the nation in prime-time on each of the convention’s four nights. The president wants the opportunity to rebut charges made against him throughout the Democratic program, aides said, particularly on his handling of the coronavirus crisis.
A stage has been built at the Andrew W. Mellon Auditorium in Washington, a neo-Classical event space where most of the speakers will address a live audience. Current regulations in Washington prohibit gatherings of more than 50 people; Republican aides say they have hired “COVID experts” to determine how many onlookers can enter the auditorium and what audience participation could look like.
The list of speakers is heavy on the president’s relatives and White House staff members, including Dan Scavino, Trump’s former caddie who is now deputy chief of staff for communications, and Larry Kudlow, the national economic adviser. Rudy Giuliani, the president’s personal lawyer, will also speak, according to a person involved in the planning. Kimberly Guilfoyle, a campaign fundraising official and Donald Trump Jr.’s girlfriend, is also a scheduled speaker.
The lineup also includes Mark and Patricia McCloskey, the Missouri couple that toted weapons at Black protesters and have since become right-wing media stars, and Nicholas Sandmann, the Kentucky teenager who sued news outlets over coverage of his encounter last year with a Native American protester in Washington.
Each night’s events are expected to begin at 8:30 p.m., a half-hour earlier than the Democrats’ program, although the major broadcast networks do not start covering until 10 p.m.
A “Democrats For Trump” segment is planned, although the participants remain a closely guarded secret. Tim Scott of South Carolina, the sole Black Republican in the Senate, will speak, along with three future potential presidential candidates: Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas; Nikki Haley, the former ambassador to the United Nations; and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
The former acting director of National Intelligence, Richard Grenell, will have a lead speaking role, as will Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Ja’Ron Smith, the highest-ranking Black official in the Trump White House, is set to speak on the final night. A handful of supportive House members, including Reps. Matt Gaetz and Jim Jordan, also have speaking slots.
“The Democratic convention was a Hollywood-produced, Old Guard-laden convention, if you ask me,” Kellyanne Conway, Trump’s counselor, told reporters at the White House on Friday, adding that viewers “are going to see and hear from many Americans whose lives have been monumentally impacted by this administration’s policies.”
(BEGIN OPTIONAL TRIM.)“We definitely want to improve on the dour and sour mood of the DNC,” added Conway, who is also scheduled to speak at the convention.
Shirlene Ostrov, the Republican state party chair from Hawaii, said she expected the convention “will be much more positive” than the Democrats’ offering.
“If the Democrats could articulate any reason to vote their way without mentioning the word ‘Trump,’ you can’t hear it,” she said in an interview Saturday in Charlotte.
(END OPTIONAL TRIM.)The president is set to accept his party’s nomination on Thursday from the White House, with fireworks above the South Lawn. The first lady, Melania Trump, will speak Tuesday from the Rose Garden, and Vice President Mike Pence will appear Wednesday from Fort McHenry in Maryland, the site of a battle in the War of 1812 that inspired “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
All of the sites are controlled by the federal government, which some ethics experts say would violate the Hatch Act, a Depression-era law that bans the use of public spaces for political activities. Trump aides said that the White House venues being used are considered part of the residence and therefore are authorized for political use. Some of Trump’s aides privately scoff at the Hatch Act and say they take pride in violating its regulations.
(STORY CAN END HERE. OPTIONAL MATERIAL FOLLOWS.)The president’s sensitivity to TV production values has also raised pressure on Republican aides to pull off a glitch-free affair.
The Democrats’ relatively smooth experience belied the complexity of mounting a virtual event, from juggling dozens of remote video feeds to avoiding embarrassments like losing picture or sound. To ensure professionalism, the Democrats relied on Ricky Kirshner, the producer of the Super Bowl halftime show and the Tony Awards.
The Republicans’ celebration is being coordinated by longtime Trump loyalists including Conway; Justin Clark, the deputy campaign manager; Hope Hicks, a senior White House adviser; and Lara Trump, the president’s daughter-in-law. Tony Sayegh, a former Treasury Department official who was brought on as a consultant to help handle the convention, is overseeing plans with Max Miller, a former White House official who took charge of campaign events after Trump’s sparsely attended rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and who has little experience in television production.
The team is consulting with Kim, who served as Burnett’s head of business development for about a decade, earning production credits on “The Celebrity Apprentice” and “The Voice.”
Kim, whose production firm has received $54,274 in payments from the Republican Party’s convention committee, has a relatively low profile in the TV industry. Several producers who worked on “The Apprentice” said last week they had never heard of him. In 2010, he served as a judge for the Miss Universe pageant, with an official bio saying he “negotiates, packages and manages deals with brands and agencies” for Burnett’s programs.
LaBella, the other consultant, has a long relationship with Trump dating to his time as a talent wrangler on “The Apprentice”; he also worked on pageants for Miss Universe and Miss USA. He was linked to Trump’s inner circle after Michael Cohen, the president’s former lawyer, steered LaBella to Keith Davidson for legal work. Davidson was the Hollywood lawyer who negotiated payments on behalf of two women who said they had affairs with Trump.
A company owned by LaBella has received $81,603 in payments from the Republican convention committee, according to financial disclosure reports. (Republican aides declined to make Kim or LaBella available for interviews.)
For viewers at home, there is a chance that Trump’s desire for in-person events could backfire.
The Democrats’ virtual roll call, featuring YouTube-friendly dispatches from delegates in their home states and territories, won praise for its kookiness and made an internet star of a masked Rhode Island calamari chef. Republicans, in contrast, are planning an in-person roll call in Charlotte, but the event is scheduled to take place Monday morning, meaning fewer Americans will see it.
Privately, Republican aides admitted it was a mistake for the president and his campaign operatives to lower expectations for Biden’s ability to deliver his acceptance speech, which ended up being well-received, including by analysts on Fox News.
Now, aides say, they feel confident that — for the same reason — skepticism about Trump’s convention will play to their benefit this week.