Updated 8/24/20, 10:38 a.m.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — President Donald Trump turned a surprise opening-day appearance at his party's scaled-down national political convention into an new opportunity to cast doubt on the integrity of the fall election just moments after delegates nominated him for a second term.
"The only way they can take this election away from us is if this is a rigged election," Trump said Monday as the convention kicked off with a day of "official business" in Charlotte, North Carolina before moving to Washington, D.C., for prime-time programming.
Trump has sought to minimize the toll of the coronavirus pandemic, but its impact was plainly evident at the Charlotte Convention Center, where just several hundred people gathered instead of the thousands once expected to converge on this city for a week-long extravaganza. Attendees sat at well-spaced tables at first and masks were mandatory, though many were seen flouting the regulation
The GOP convention is a crucial moment for Trump, who is trailing in national and battleground state polls and under intense pressure to turn the race around. Just 23% think the country is heading in the right direction, while 75% think it's on the wrong path, according to a new poll from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.
The fact that the Republicans gathered at all stood in sharp contrast to the Democrats, who held an all-virtual convention last week. The Democratic programming included a well-received roll call video montage featuring diverse officials from across the nation. The Republicans spoke from the ballroom and were overwhelmingly white.
Trump said he had made the trip to contrast himself with his Democratic rival, Joe Biden, who never traveled to Wisconsin, the state where the Democratic convention was originally supposed to be held. "I showed up,' he said at a later stop.
In his nearly hour-long Charlotte speech, Trump once again sowed doubts about the integrity of November's election as he laced into mail-in voting, which experts say has proven remarkably safe.
"Be very very careful," he told the attendees, who crowded close to the stage when Trump spoke. "This is the most important election in the history of the country. Don't let them take it away from you."
Trump also panned the state's Democratic governor for restrictions put in place to try to prevent the spread of the virus, which has killed more than 175,000 people and infected millions nationwide. Trump accused Gov. Roy Cooper of "being in a total shutdown mode" and claimed the restrictions were aimed at trying to hurt his campaign.
Trump's remarks stood in contrast to the positive message he and the party had said would be on display this week after they criticized the Democrats as being too negative at their convention.
Republicans will spend the week trying to convince the American people that the president deserves a second term. Aides want the convention to recast the story of Trump's presidency and present the election as a choice between his vision for America's future and the one presented by Biden.
"Over the next four days, President Trump and Republicans are going to talk about all we have achieved the past four years, and cast an aspirational, forward-looking vision about what we can achieve in the next four," said GOP Chair Ronna McDaniel.
For both sides, it's an unconventional convention year.
The parties' election year gatherings are typically massive events, drawing thousands of delegates, party leaders, donors, journalists and political junkies for a week of speeches, parties and after-parties that inject hundreds of thousands of dollars into the local economy and deliver a multiday infomercial for the nominee.
The coronavirus has changed all that, as much as Trump has resisted. While there were still signs designating each state and gift bags with Republican swag, gone was the grandeur, the pomp and the pageantry. Just 336 delegates — six from each of the 50 states, the District of Columbia and U.S. territories — were invited to cast proxy votes on behalf of the more than 2,500 regular delegates. And stringent safety measures were put in place, guided by a 42-page health and safety plan developed by a hired doctor.
Attendees were asked to practice enhanced social distancing and get tested prior to travel, fill out a pre-travel health questionnaire and participate in a daily symptom tracker. They're also being tested onsite, have been asked to maintain a 6-foot (1.8-meter) distance from other people and to use face coverings as a condition of participation — though many attendees were seen openly flouting those rules Monday morning.
The event was met with some protests in Charlotte, and police made several arrests.
Besides the formal nomination roll call, the party also approved a handful of new resolutions, including one that labels the Southern Poverty Law Center, which catalogs the country's hate groups, a "radical organization." Another bemoans "cancel culture," warning that it "has grown into erasing of history, encouraging lawlessness, muting citizens and violating free exchange of ideas, thoughts, and speech."
But delegates did not vote on a new 2020 platform, after a unanimous vote to forgo one this year.
"RESOLVED, That the Republican Party has and will continue to enthusiastically support the President's America-first agenda," a resolution instead reads, in part.
The focus will now shift to Washington and prime-time programming that will feature well-known Trump supporters, including members of his family, outspoken conservatives and everyday Americans who campaign officials say have been helped by Trump's policies.
First lady Melania Trump will speak Tuesday from the White House Rose Garden, Vice President Mike Pence will appear from Fort McHenry in Baltimore on Wednesday and Trump will deliver his marquee acceptance speech on Thursday from the South Lawn before a crowd of supporters — blurring the lines between governing and campaigning yet again.