Republicans rush to finalize convention (‘Apprentice’ producers are helping)

By Michael M. Grynbaum and Annie Karni

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 recorded 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. 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 can 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 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.

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 two future potential presidential candidates: Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas and Nikki Haley, the former ambassador to the United Nations.

“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.”

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.

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