Trump makes bid for empathy on first night of RNC as he is hailed hero of coronavirus pandemic

Republicans choose to tout president's weakest resume item to open convention – with at least 177,000 Americans now dead from Covid-19

John T. Bennett
Washington Bureau Chief
Tuesday 25 August 2020 03:34 BST
Trump jokes about hydroxychloroquine as he appears at RNC surrounded by essential workers

Donald Trump joked about a malaria drug his administration determined a poor treatment for coronavirus that he pushed for months as he made his prime time Republican National Convention debut – where his handling of the pandemic was nevertheless repeatedly praised.

The president's team had promised an upbeat convention message, but they matched Democrats' dark and gloomy tone as both parties – for different reasons – described the country as something of a bleak hellscape that the other side wants to make even worse. GOP speakers contended Democrats want to enact policies that would bring an end to America's suburbs, wipe out their finances and give other countries a major advantage on the global stage.

The president appeared at the event for the second time on Monday in the East Room of the White House with nurses, law enforcement personnel, postal workers and others. They hailed his Covid-19 response as the RNC and Trump campaign opened the convention by defending what is likely the weakest part of the president's resume: his virus response. There are at least 177,000 coronavirus deaths in America, and over 5.7m cases, according to The Johns Hopkins University.

"I won't ask you about the hyrdroxychloroquine," Mr Trump said to laughter after one of his guests said he was given a Z-Pack and cough medicine when he tested positive for the virus.

Earlier in the first night of the convention, speakers hailed the administration's work to authorise other anti-coronavirus drugs – but none mentioned hydroxychloroquine, which Mr Trump pushed for months without any supporting medical or scientific data.

He again on Monday noted that he had allegedly taken the malaria drug himself.

The segment with Mr Trump and his guests, all of whom had had coronavirus, appeared an attempt to make him seem empathetic.

Democrats spent parts of their four-night convention making the opposite case, saying he "quit" on his fellow Americans and still lacks any coronavirus plan.

The president addressed the political convention from the White House after North Carolina officials shut down his plans for a full, in-person event there. Then a Covid-19 outbreak in Florida prevented him from holding it in Jacksonville.

Mr Trump made his second appearance of the day at the convention, having dropped in – somewhat unannounced – at the in-person portion of the event in Charlotte following the roll call vote that handed him the nomination.

He initially selected North Carolina as the host state in a strategic move. He narrowly won it in 2016, but has trailed first individual Democratic candidates in polls and then Mr Biden. Mr Trump now leads his general election foe there, but only by less than 1 percentage point, according to RealClearPolitics' average of several surveys.

The evening's keynote address was delivered by South Carolina Senator Tim Scott, a black lawmaker who wrote a police reform bill that failed to become law. He attacked Democrats as far-left and used his own personal story to tout GOP policies, saying: "My family went from cotton to Congress in one lifetime."

On Democrats, he said: "They want to take ... money from your pocket and give it to Manhattan elites and Hollywood moguls. ... When it comes to Joe Biden ... look at his actions."

That came a few hours after Mr Trump spoke for the first time during the convention.


"This has been a real lovefest between North Carolina and Trump. Right? It has been incredible," he told a small crowd at an airport in Asheville. "We have had a tremendous success here and you've had, so last year you had the most successful year you ever had and you are going to break that record again next year."

It was not clear to which record the president was referring, however. The Tar Heel state, prior to the coronavirus outbreak, had fared well under Trump's tenure. Its economy added over 75,000 jobs from July 2018 to July 2019 – a pace faster than the rest of the country, according to WRAL-TV. Still, average wages there were still lower than the average for all US states.

As Republicans opened their convention, Mr Biden had a 7.6 per cent lead nationally, according a RealClear average. He also led Mr Trump by at least 5 percentage points in six key swing states: Florida, Pennsylvania, Minnesota, Michigan and Wisconsin. What's more, the duo are within most polls' margins of error in typically GOP strongholds like Ohio, Texas and Georgia.

The show opened with Turning Point USA founder Charlie Kirk calling Mr Trump "the bodyguard of Western civilization".

A major theme was the Covid-19 pandemic being merely a health and economic speedbump.

"Donald Trump did it before," House Minority Whip Steve Scalise said. "And he will do it again."

Another GOP House member, Matt Gaetz, took a jab at protesters and activists who have spoken out and marched – and sometimes gotten violent – after a string of deaths of black people at the hands of white police officers.

Mr Gaetz also, like other speakers, called Mr Trump a unique leader who is a solid fit for a difficult era.

"President Trump sometimes raises his voice and a ruckus," Mr Gaetz said. "We must protect our home ... with strength I see everyday in President Donald Trump."


The Florida congressman also took jabs at Mr Biden.

"Settle for Biden – that's the hashtag promoted by AOC and the socialists," he said. "The woketopians will Settle for Biden because they will make him an extra in a movie written, produced and directed by others."

He also tried to link the Democratic nominee, largely considered a moderate much of his career, to the party's progressive wing.

Nikki Haley, a former American ambassador to the United Nations, said the president has a track record of "strength" but Mr Biden has one of "weakness".

She contended that Mr Biden and the Obama administration "let Iran get away with murder" but "President Trump did the right thing and ripped up the Iran nuclear deal".

The former South Carolina governor, likely a 2024 candidate for her party's nomination, also indirectly defended Democratic charges that the president and his administration oppose black people and other minority groups.

"America is not a racist country," she claimed. "America is a story that is a work in progress."

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