President Donald Trump got the convention party he always wanted for his 2020 acceptance speech — he just had to put it on in his government-owned backyard.
After spurning Charlotte because North Carolina’s Democratic governor refused to allow a mass gathering in a crowded arena, and forced to bail from Jacksonville, Fla., by the realities of the coronavirus outbreak, Trump invited more than a thousand Republican officeholders, party bigwigs and other supporters to the White House for an extraordinary campaign event on the South Lawn.
Walking down the steps of the South Portico to Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the U.S.A.,” Trump officially accepted the GOP presidential nomination and laid out his case and an agenda for another four years as president — all while painting a dark, near-apocalyptic picture of America if Joe Biden defeats him this fall.
“This is the most important election in the history of our country,” said Trump in a speech heavy on culture-war themes. “There has never been such a difference between two parties or two individuals, in ideology, philosophy or vision than there is right now.”
The setting flouted federal bans on the use of government resources to promote his political fortunes. And public health experts expressed alarm at the sight of so many people gathered in close proximity and largely without face coverings, though they were outside.
Trump’s mostly scripted speech stood in stark contrast to his remarks just three days ago in Charlotte, where — as delegates officially chose him to lead the party’s ticket — Trump accused Democrats of trying to steal the election by expanding access to mail ballots for voters concerned about contracting the coronavirus at polling places.
Here are POLITICO’s superlatives from the final night of the Republican convention.
Biggest brag: “The fact is, I’m here”
It’s no secret Trump exults in his 2016 victory. Whether it’s at rallies or even official events, the president is fond of recounting the events of Nov. 8, 2016.
A key part of Trump’s reelection message is presenting himself as a bulwark against chaos in the country, whether it’s violence in some American cities or the “cancel culture” he decried Thursday night.
But one of Trump’s biggest challenges is that he’s the president now. Biden on Thursday sought to deflect the claims by Trump and Vice President Mike Pence that Americans “won’t be safe in Joe Biden’s America” by pointing out that people are living now in Trump’s America.
It’s the same struggle for Trump to run as a political outsider after four years as president (and his embrace of all the trappings of incumbency this week). But he’s trying: Trump urged voters on Thursday “to turn the page forever” on what he called a “failed political class. The fact is, I’m here.”
Then he corrected himself: “But I’ll say it differently: The fact is, we’re here. And they’re not.”
Filibuster award: Trump’s long-windedness
Move over, Bill Clinton: Trump is America’s most verbose modern president.
According to the American Presidency Project at the University of California-Santa Barbara, Trump spoke Thursday night for just over an hour and 10 minutes — nearly three times longer than Biden did in his 24-minute acceptance speech last week.
Trump fell just short of breaking his own record for the longest modern convention acceptance speech. Four years ago in Cleveland, Trump spoke for an hour and 15 minutes, outpacing Bill Clinton’s hour-and-six-minute address in Chicago in 1996.
But that was in front of an arena full of screaming delegates, and this year’s speech was longer on this measure: Trump’s prepared remarks, to which he added a number of Trumpian asides during delivery, totaled 5,650 words — more than the 5,092 words he spoke in 2016.
Most telling point: Kevin McCarthy
Trump’s first major legislative push as president was to try to dismantle Obamacare, and it has proved to be a major political headache for Republicans ever since. Democrats pummeled GOP incumbents on health care in the 2018 midterm elections, and no remembers that more than House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (Calif.), who might be speaker of the House if not for those attacks.
“We will always, and very strongly, protect patients with pre-existing conditions,” Trump said, though the 2017 effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act would have removed those protections if successful, as would litigation his administration is pushing right now. “And that is a pledge from the entire Republican Party.”
Trump then pointed directly at McCarthy. “Thank you, Kevin,” he said — though the thanks might have been going in the opposite direction, given the damage the House GOP ranks suffered over the issue two years ago.
Fewest Pinocchios: Ivanka Trump
Fact-checkers have had a field day with the Republican convention. But even CNN’s Daniel Dale, whose rapid-fire recounting of falsehoods from the speeches have gone viral, couldn’t argue with this line from the president’s daughter, Ivanka Trump, who introduced her father on the South Lawn Thursday night.
“Washington has not changed Donald Trump,” she said. “Donald Trump has changed Washington.”
Ivanka Trump was the last in a long line of Trump family members and White House staffers to address the convention, including her husband and fellow executive-branch employee Jared Kushner. Many of them sought to vouch for Trump’s character, attempting to combat poll numbers that show Biden with higher ratings on personal favorability and a number of characteristics.
Defector of the night: Jeff Van Drew
One artifact of the Trump-era political realignment on clear display over the past two weeks: the large number of politicians and voters who said they are crossing party lines to vote for the other candidate.
But none went as far as Rep. Jeff Van Drew of New Jersey, the freshman congressman who was elected as a Democrat in 2018 and switched parties following the impeachment vote in the House. That earned him a speaking slot on the Republican convention’s final night.
“How I became a Republican says a lot about today’s Democratic Party,” Van Drew said, describing the caucus he left after a year as in thrall to the left wing of the party.
Like Trump — whom he endorsed in his speech on Thursday — Van Drew faces a difficult campaign to return to D.C. next year. He’s locked in a tight race for his South Jersey district with Democrat Amy Kennedy, the wife of former Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-R.I.).
Longest-living quote: Robert Gates, delivered by Tom Cotton
Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), a possible 2024 GOP presidential candidate, got his turn on the convention stage on Thursday with a speech targeting Biden on foreign policy.
In his remarks, Cotton returned to a common refrain this week: citing former Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ criticism of Biden in his 2014 book, “Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War.”
“Joe Biden would return us to a weak and dangerous past,” Cotton, an Army combat veteran, said Thursday. “Barack Obama’s own secretary of defense said Joe Biden has been wrong on nearly every major national-security decision over the past four decades.”
Gates, of course, is a long-time Republican and was a holdover from George W. Bush’s administration. Also a Trump critic, Gates declined earlier this summer to offer an opinion on the Trump-Biden race.
Blast from the past: Rudy Giuliani
After three nights that broke sharply with the GOP’s past, there was finally a familiar face at Republican conventions speaking on Thursday: Rudy Giuliani.
Giuliani has delivered key remarks in previous conventions: In 2004, when Republicans gathered in New York less than three years after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the former mayor famously told attendees, “Thank God George Bush is our president.”
Four years later, he was on stage in Minnesota attacking then-Sen. Barack Obama as “the least experienced candidate for president of the United States in at least the last 100 years.” In 2016, he delivered a speech that The New York Times said in a headline was characterized by “Fear, Danger and Anger.”
Without an audience, his speech Thursday night was at a lower volume. But Giuliani still excoriated the Black Lives Matter movement and “progressive Democrats” who want “to release prisoners as many and as soon as possible.”
Along with Trump’s message in his acceptance speech, that struck a discordant note with other moments throughout the week. The convention also featured significant celebration of Trump’s signing of a criminal-justice reform law, as well as criticism of Biden for his work on the 1994 crime law that included harsher penalties for federal offenses, including the “three-strikes” provision.