The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Pence makes case for Trump as ‘law and order’ president while Blake shooting continues to reverberate

Vice President Pence touted President Trump’s time in office while criticizing Democratic nominee Joe Biden during the Aug. 26 Republican National Convention. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Placeholder while article actions load

Republicans used the third day of their national convention to portray President Trump as a strong defender of conservative principles on law enforcement, defense and the economy — emphasizing his law-and-order credentials as social unrest flared again after another police shooting of a Black man.

Vice President Pence, the headliner of the night, took the lead in painting Trump as projecting leadership abroad and overseeing a strong domestic economy before it was battered by the coronavirus pandemic. And in one of the night's sharpest attacks against Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, Pence warned: "You won't be safe in Joe Biden's America."

"He does things in his own way, on his own terms," Pence said of Trump, who was in attendance for the speech at Fort McHenry in Baltimore. "Not much gets past him, and when he has an opinion, he's liable to share it. He's certainly kept things interesting, but more importantly, President Donald Trump has kept his word to the American people."

But the night's focus also served to highlight where Trump, who has governed as a populist with a nationalist streak, has often been at odds with the party's traditional messages on the economy and intervention abroad. Where the party once pushed a message of free trade, Trump has put in place tariffs and embraced protectionist policies. Where his GOP predecessors frequently deployed the military abroad, Trump has called for bringing soldiers home.

The evening's program, much like those of the preceding two nights, sidestepped those differences as the party fully lines up behind Trump. Speakers instead focused on portraying the president as a defender of police, soldiers, medical personnel and small-business workers while depicting Democrats as their enemies.

None of the speakers specifically addressed the police shooting of Jacob Blake Jr., a Black man, in Kenosha, Wis., on Sunday, which left him paralyzed from the waist down. Violent protests have since ensued, and on Wednesday, local officials said a 17-year-old had been charged with homicide after two people in Kenosha were killed and another seriously wounded by gunfire during overnight protests.

Racial justice protests have been a mainstay of the summer across the country following the police killing of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man who died in Minneapolis in May when a police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes, and Trump has grown heavily critical of the protesters after first supporting peaceful gatherings in response to Floyd’s death.

Republicans on Wednesday night echoed that criticism and joined Trump in portraying the protests, which have included looting and violence, as a dire threat to the country. And they accused Democratic officials in cities across the country of failing to restore order.

“From Seattle and Portland to Washington and New York, Democrat-run cities across this country are being overrun by violent mobs,” said South Dakota Gov. Kristi L. Noem, one of the opening speakers. “People that can afford to flee have fled. But the people that can’t — good, hard-working Americans — are left to fend for themselves.”

In the face of accusations that Trump and Republicans' rhetoric toward the racial justice movement is racist, Pence said the administration supports both the Black community and the police departments that have come under increasing scrutiny for how they patrol communities of color.

"The American people know we don't have to choose between supporting law enforcement and standing with our African American neighbors to improve the quality of their lives, education, jobs and safety," Pence said. "And from the first days of this administration, we've done both. And we will keep supporting law enforcement and keep supporting our African American and minority communities across this land for four more years."

The unfolding turmoil in the country — both the aftermath of the Kenosha shooting and Hurricane Laura barreling toward the Gulf Coast — did little to alter the convention programming, much of it having been recorded in advance. But two officials familiar with the planning said Trump’s formal address to the convention Thursday might not happen because of Laura, a storm that the National Hurricane Center said could trigger an “unsurvivable” storm surge and which strengthened into a Category 4 hurricane earlier Wednesday. The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the private planning.

Advisers will decide Thursday morning whether Trump will speak after assessing the damage to Texas and Louisiana. Trump is scheduled to address an audience on the South Lawn of the White House, and he tweeted earlier Thursday that his administration was "fully engaged" with officials in Texas, Louisiana and Arkansas.

"This is a serious storm, and we urge all those in the affected areas to heed state and local authorities," Pence said. "Stay safe, and know that we'll be with you every step of the way to support, rescue, response and recovery in the days and weeks ahead."

A major thread throughout the GOP convention has been Trump's fervent support for police, as the president seeks to capitalize on racial unrest in primarily Democratic-run cities and states to warn of urban chaos should he lose reelection.

One of the scheduled speakers was Michael "Mick" McHale, a retired Florida police officer who heads the National Association of Police Organizations. In his remarks, he accused Biden of turning "his candidacy over to the far-left anti-law enforcement radicals."

"The differences between Trump-Pence and Biden-Harris are crystal-clear," McHale said. "Your choices are the most pro-law enforcement president we've ever had, or the most radical anti-police ticket in history."

Meanwhile, Biden and his running mate, Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.), spoke with the Blake family earlier Wednesday. Biden released a video statement that condemned not only the police shooting but also the violent protests that erupted in its aftermath.

“You know, as I said after George Floyd’s murder, protesting brutality is a right, and absolutely necessary,” Biden said. “But burning down communities is not protests. It’s needless violence.”

Thursday's speaking lineup was heavy on lawmakers and senior officials with national security backgrounds, as well as outside supporters of the president's foreign policy agenda.

That included Ric Grenell, the former acting director of national intelligence and U.S. ambassador to Germany; Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), who is the first female combat veteran elected to the Senate and is locked in a tough reelection bid; Keith Kellogg, Pence's national security adviser; and Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R-Tex.), a former Navy SEAL officer who served in Iraq and Afghanistan and lost his right eye to an improvised explosive device during one of his deployments.

Some of the testimonials to Trump ran counter to what is known about Trump's relationship with foreign leaders while exaggerating his achievements or providing a misleading accounting of his presidency.

Grenell said he saw the president "charm" German Chancellor Angela Merkel, even though the president has repeatedly antagonized her publicly.

Many credited Trump with taking a tough stand against China while ignoring his attempts to court President Xi Jinping at the beginning of his presidency and ignoring Beijing's human rights abuses.

Kellogg acknowledged that Trump is "no hawk" on foreign policy but portrayed him as acting decisively when needed, a description that runs counter to the portrait painted by former national security adviser John Bolton in his recent book.

"He wisely wields the sword when required but believes in seeking peace instead of perpetual conflict," Kellogg said.

Another one of the speakers was the exiled Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng, who was under house arrest in China until his 2012 escape to the U.S. Embassy in Beijing and eventually to the United States. He has written in support of the Trump administration’s posture toward China.

The Trump family affair at the convention continued, with Lara Trump, the president's daughter-in-law and an adviser to the campaign, delivering one of the closing remarks. Second lady Karen Pence spoke about support for military families.

Other speakers included Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.) and Madison Cawthorn, the Republican nominee for the 11th Congressional District in North Carolina who at 25 is poised to become the youngest-ever member of Congress.

The lineup also included an array of everyday “heroes” — such as Clarence Henderson, a participant in the Greensboro, N.C., sit-ins of the 1960s, and the veteran football coach Lou Holtz — who the campaign said had made significant contributions “to our great American story.”

Holtz, who coached at the University of Notre Dame, took personal aim at Biden, calling the former vice president and others like him "Catholics in name only" because of their support for abortion rights.

Sister Deirdre "Dede" Byrne, of the Little Workers of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary, echoed the criticism from Holtz, calling Biden and Harris "the most anti-life presidential ticket ever" and praising Trump for his policies opposing abortion access.

Senior Democratic officials took a swipe at the vice president in advance of his speech, portraying him as subservient to the president and an enabler of the chaos in the Trump White House.

"Pence is quiet as a little mouse," Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said in a conference call organized by the Democratic National Committee. "He has shown no leadership. He has just been a total acolyte of President Trump's bad policies, misdeeds and, frankly, lying."

Pence delivered his convention address at Fort McHenry in Baltimore, now a historic landmark that was used to defend Baltimore Harbor from the British navy during the War of 1812. That battle is the inspiration for the poem written by Francis Scott Key that eventually became "The Star-Spangled Banner."

The site is maintained by the federal government through the National Park Service.

Trump's reference to Baltimore in 2019 as a "disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess" was not mentioned.

Questions also continued Wednesday over Trump and the Republican Party's use of government resources and landmarks that critics decry as a blatant violation of federal law meant to maintain a gulf between official government business and political activity.

The Office of Special Counsel said in a statement Wednesday that it would investigate complaints about violations of the Hatch Act, which bars executive-branch employees from participating in politics in their official capacity. But the office emphasized that it has no power to enforce the criminal provisions of the law, which is an issue for the Justice Department.

“OSC’s role does not include grandstanding or holding news conferences about potential violations that may or may not occur,” said Henry J. Kerner, a Trump appointee who heads the office. “Ultimately, officials and employees choose whether to comply with the law.”

The statement also reiterated that some areas of the White House — including the Rose Garden and the West Lawn — do not fall under the Hatch Act, nor can the president or vice president violate it. First lady Melania Trump’s speech to the convention was delivered in the Rose Garden on Tuesday, and the president’s South Lawn remarks are expected to draw an audience of at least 1,000.

White House officials have dismissed Hatch Act concerns, emphasizing that administration employees who appear at the convention — including outgoing White House counselor Kellyanne Conway and current White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany - were doing so in their personal capacities.

Both Conway and McEnany, who spoke Wednesday, described Trump as a supportive boss who empowered and elevated women to senior positions in the White House and in the campaign.