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The second night of the Republican National Convention toned down some of the apocalyptic warnings against a Democratic-led White House in favor of more positive messaging about President Donald Trump and his record, though brief attacks on Joe Biden still peppered the evening.
The theme of the night was “Land of Opportunity.” Speakers praised Trump’s record on criminal justice reform, foreign policy, government deregulation and the coronavirus pandemic. Perhaps the most consequential moments came from Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo using their positions as public servants to promote the campaign’s interests.
But the moment that everyone has been talking about came from first lady Melania Trump who made a rare public appearance to deliver a campaign speech from the White House Rose Garden. In her speech, which stretched about 25 minutes, she chose to amplify a more compassionate message of unity, urging the country to “come together in a civil manner” during times of hardship and racial tension, a strong departure from her husband’s rhetoric and what audiences have heard from most of the convention’s speakers.
Trump frequently blurs the line between his role as president and role as candidate. That trend continued into Tuesday as Trump showcased himself performing presidential duties in the White House clearly executed for the convention broadcast to promote his candidacy.
Early in the evening, audiences got to see a pre-recorded video of Trump pardoning Jon Ponder, a convicted bank robber who turned to Christianity and activism and created Hope for Prisoners, an organization that offers training programs aimed at helping former inmates successfully reintegrate into society.
Trump described Ponder’s story as “a beautiful testament to the power of redemption.” The president later added that he will “continue to give all Americans, including former inmates, the best chance to build a new life and achieve their own American dream.”
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As criminal justice reform increasingly becomes a bipartisan cause, the pardon served as an opportunity for Trump to appeal to a broader swath of voters and soften the image he has projected in recent months with his “law and order” rhetoric promoting harsh treatment of Black Lives Matter protesters.
Speakers from the first two nights of the convention have praised Trump’s role in signing the 2018 First Step Act, a popular bipartisan bill that sought to reform sentencing policies that disproportionately affected Black communities.
In another show of presidential power orchestrated for the convention Tuesday, Trump oversaw a naturalization ceremony held by acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf in the White House. A diverse group of immigrants from Bolivia, Lebanon, India, Sudan and Ghana took their oath of allegiance to the country, with Trump standing nearby.
“You followed the rules, you obeyed the laws, you learned your history, embraced our values, and proved yourselves to be men and women of the highest integrity,” Trump told the new citizens.
The ceremony was a marked difference from the kind of language that has in part defined Trump’s presidency, including comments that have cast Mexicans as rapists, referred to African nations as “s***hole countries” and painted a picture of the U.S. threatened by immigration. During his time in office the president has issued a travel ban on a number of majority-Muslim countries, moved to significantly curb legal entry processes, such as aslyum and signed off on the separation of children at the southern border that was widely criticized by Democrats and Republicans alike.
One of the most controversial appearances Tuesday was Mike Pompeo, whose participation in the convention bucks a long-running expectation that U.S. diplomats avoid political activity.
Last year, his department issued a directive barring presidential appointees from engaging in “political activity in concert with a partisan candidate, political party, or partisan
political group,” citing the Hatch Act.
“Senate confirmed Presidential appointees may not even attend a political party convention or convention-related event,” the memo stated in bold.
Adding more fuel to the criticism, Pompeo’s remarks Tuesday were pre-recorded while he was conducting official State Department business in Israel. “This president has led bold initiatives in nearly every corner of the world,” Pompeo said. He touted Trump’s actions with North Korea, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the president’s response to China during the pandemic without capturing the full scope of these dealings.
Pompeo said that Trump “has held China accountable for covering up” the initial outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, asserting that the coronavirus struck “courtesy of the Chinese Communist Party.” However, the genetic makeup of the virus indicates it could not have been man-made or manufactured in a lab, according to research.
Tuesday’s lineup featured several speakers intended to touch on issues important to Trump’s loyal base, including from those against abortion and who want tighter immigration enforcement. But some of those choices seemed to backfire in controversial and racist remarks before and during Tuesday’s programming.
Mary Ann Mendoza, whose police officer son was killed in a drunk driving accident involving an undocumented immigrant, was scheduled to speak but was abruptly pulled from the program after tweeting a thread earlier in the day promoting an anti-Semitic QAnon conspiracy theory. Mendoza deleted and apologized for the tweet, but according to the Washington Post, she tweeted something similar about a Jewish family in 2018.
QAnon, a movement driven by a series of far-right conspiracy theories, has posed other problems for the party this month. The Texas Republican Party faced backlash for changing its campaign slogan to “We Are the Storm,” which many criticized as a nod to QAnon’s rallying cry. This summer Trump praised a QAnon supporting candidate Marjorie Taylor Greene after she won her congressional primary in Georgia. He also described QAnon followers as “people that love our country.”
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The controversy over Mendoza was amplified when Abby Johnson, a former Planned Parenthood worker turned anti-abortion rights activist, shared the gruesome details of an abortion procedure she claims changed her politics — a story she has told publicly before.
News investigations have raised questions about the veracity of Johnson’s claims. The Texas Observer quoted sources who said Johnson expressed concerns about being short on money and looked to joining the anti-abortion movement as a way to receive higher pay for speaking events. Texas Monthly could not find records at Planned Parenthood detailing the graphic procedure Johnson frequently describes.
Johnson’s address on Tuesday likely was not new for seasoned anti-abortion rights activists, but the graphic detail she included may have fueled anger among people who oppose abortion more broadly and sent shockwaves for some undecided voters unfamiliar with Johnson’s work. The desire to showcase both Johnson and Mendoza, demonstrates the party’s interest in speaking to issues important to Trump’s, but the backlash suggests they risk alienating the moderates from whom Trump may need support to win reelection.
Three of Trump’s children have spoken so far during the convention to make a political case for their father.
In a rare appearance for Tiffany Trump, the president’s youngest daughter and a less visible member of his family, she urged voters to judge her father on his “results and not rhetoric.” “This is a fight for freedom versus oppression, for opportunity versus stagnation; a fight to keep America true to America,” Trump said.
Eric Trump commended his father for cutting taxes and government regulations, and taking on terrorists.
Like their brother Donald Trump Jr. the prior night, both Tiffany and Eric attempted to highlight the successes of their father’s administration but did not add any personal details about the president as a person or a parent. The lack of personal detail has been a key difference between the Republican and Democratic conventions. The prior week included a string of nostalgic video montages about Biden’s childhood and interviews with Biden’s children, wife and grandchildren sharing humanizing stories about him.
The Trump children, however, shared on-message lists of his purported political successes. In the absence of support for Trump from establishment Republicans such as former president George W. Bush or Utah Sen. Mitt Romney, Trump’s children are playing a prominent role in pitching a second term to the public but so far haven’t shared much beyond what voters see from the president in public.
The night’s standout speech came from the first lady, who in stark contrast to other speakers so far in this convention, said she would not use her “precious time attacking the other side.”
Melania Trump opted instead for a message of sympathy, noting the human toll that the coronavirus pandemic has taken. “I want to acknowledge the fact that since March our lives have changed drastically,” she said. “My deepest sympathy goes out to everyone who has lost a loved one. And my prayers are with those who are ill or suffering.”
She also spoke about her experiences as an immigrant from Slovenia, her “Be Best” initiative aimed at raising awareness about opioid abuse and cyberbullying, and the protests over racism and police violence spurred by the police killing of George Floyd in May, and reignited in recent days by the shooting of Jacob Blake in Wisconsin. There again Trump broke from her husband, who has sharply criticized protesters and hasn’t acknowledged systemic racism in policing.
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Instead, she offered words of hope. “Like all of you, I have reflected on the racial unrest in our country. It is a harsh reality that we are not proud of parts of our history. I encourage people to focus on our future while still learning from our past,” she said. “We must remember that today we are all one community comprised of many races, religions and ethnicities. Our diverse and storied history is what makes our country strong, and yet we still have so much to learn from one another.”
Trump’s tone in her speech was dramatically different from what audiences heard from her husband, his children, and other convention speakers. While the divisive rhetoric the president is known for might appeal to his base, it has also turned off other voters. For them, Melania offered the strongest unifying message of the Republican convention so far and might have been one of the more effective of the convention.
Candice Norwood is a former digital politics reporter for the PBS NewsHour.
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