The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

4 takeaways from the second night of the Republican National Convention

First lady Melania Trump spoke at the Aug. 25 Republican National Convention. Here's her speech, in three minutes. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Placeholder while article actions load

The Republican National Convention continued Tuesday night with high-profile speeches from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and first lady Melania Trump, plus President Trump’s son Eric and daughter Tiffany.

Below, some takeaways.

1. Melania Trump’s case for her husband

In Tuesday’s keynote speech, the first lady made the case for her husband, rough edges and all.

“As you have learned over the past five years, he is not a traditional politician,” Melania Trump said. “He doesn’t just speak words. He demands action and he gets results. The future of our country has always been very important to him, and it is something that I have always admired.”

The first lady, who has run a “Be Best” campaign focused in part on online bullying, cast the president’s very public comments about his grievances in a positive light.

“We all know Donald Trump makes no secrets about how he feels about things,” she said. “Total honesty is what we as citizens deserve from our president. Whether you like it or not, you always know what he’s thinking. And that is because he’s an authentic person who loves this country and its people and wants to continue to make it better.”

One of the biggest applause lines of her speech came when she sent a message to Trump’s critics, saying, “If you tell him it cannot be done, he just works harder.”

“He’s what is best for our country,” she said.

2. An appeal to socially conservative women who have deserted Trump

Chief on the list of aims Tuesday night was appealing to women, who polls show have deserted Trump in numbers that make his reelection path very difficult. And there was clearly a focus specifically on culturally conservative women.

One speaker, Cissie Graham Lynch, the granddaughter of the late evangelical icon Billy Graham, referred to what are known as bathroom bills on transgender students, saying, “Democrats pressured schools to allow boys to compete in girls’ sports and use girls’ locker rooms.”

Another, former Planned Parenthood employee Abby Johnson, denounced abortion services in graphic terms and said she was told to push for them in her former job.

“I was expected to sell double the abortions performed the previous year,” she said. “When I pushed back, underscoring Planned Parenthood’s public-facing goal of decreasing abortions, I was reprimanded and told abortion is how we make our money.”

Johnson added: “I know what abortion smells like. Did you know abortion even had a smell? I’ve been the perpetrator to these babies, to these women. And I now support President Trump because he has done more for the unborn than any other president during his first month in office.”

Melania Trump made a general appeal to women and said she had “a special message for the mothers of this country,” describing struggling with how to talk to children about their changing world. “To mothers and parents everywhere, you are warriors. In my husband, you have a president who will not stop fighting for you and your families.”

Another video featured mothers who serve in the White House.

The angle seemed to be that conservative women who have deserted Trump in large numbers could be brought back into the fold, and the appeal was very much focused on social issues.

3. Trump’s highly unusual use of his political stage — on many counts

Trump has used his presidential power in unprecedented and transparently political ways, and Tuesday night brought more of the same.

At the start of the night, a lengthy video featured Trump’s pardon of Jon Ponder, a convicted bank robber and three-time felon who has run a program that helps people transition to life outside prison. The pardon was announced shortly before the evening’s programming in a White House video.

The touching story noted that Ponder and the FBI agent who arrested him, Richard Beasley, have become unlikely close friends.

The pardon called to mind another instance in which Trump wielded a uniquely presidential power in an unconventional, official venue: this year’s State of the Union address, where he awarded conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Trump has also awarded commutations to other political allies, including longtime political adviser Roger Stone; former Maricopa County, Ariz., sheriff Joe Arpaio; conservative media figure Conrad Black (who wrote a Trump hagiography); conservative provocateur Dinesh D’Souza, and former New York police chief Bernard Kerik.

Trump’s record of pardons suggest he sees some political benefit in them; featuring the Ponder pardon so prominently in such a political venue certainly spoke to that apparent aim.

President Trump repeatedly flouted norms and raised legal questions on Aug. 25 as official duties were performed during a political convention. (Video: The Washington Post)

Similarly, the convention aired video of a diverse group of candidates for naturalization becoming citizens, a ceremony conducted by acting Department of Homeland Security head Chad Wolf. It was another unusual use of a political convention that suggested an intent to use the process for political gain.

The scenes raised questions about potential violations of the Hatch Act, which prohibits administration officials from participation in politics in their official roles.

And those weren’t the only elements Tuesday night that raised eyebrows for joining normally apolitical government functions with politics. Melania Trump used the White House Rose Garden for her speech, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo spoke while ostensibly on a diplomatic mission in Israel — a break with diplomatic protocol and the State Department’s recent directive about appointees engaging in political campaigns.

4. Real-person testimonials — from key states

Cris Peterson, a dairy farmer from Wisconsin, addressed the Republican National Convention on Aug. 24. (Video: The Washington Post)

One thing previewed by convention organizers — whose promises of an optimistic convention weren’t exactly realized Monday — was that regular people would be featured.

That also wasn’t so much the case Monday, but it was Tuesday, and it worked.

A Wisconsin dairy farmer, Cris Peterson, recounted the recent struggles in that industry and how her family suffered a blow when their cow-milking barn burned down. But she credited Trump’s economic policies and attentiveness to farmers’ struggles.

“President Trump understands that farming is a complicated, capital-intensive and risky business,” Peterson said. “More than any president in my lifetime, he has acknowledged the importance of farmers and agriculture. That support and focus on negotiating new trade deals gave us the confidence to rebuild our barn and dairy operation.”

Peterson said Trump, amid the coronavirus pandemic, “again took steps to provide the supports we needed. … One person deserves the credit and our vote: President Donald J. Trump.”

Similarly, the owner of a metal fabrication business — another Wisconsinite — credited Trump’s deregulation and renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement with helping his business. A small-town mayor and longtime Democrat from Minnesota credited Trump’s trade war, saying that “for far too long, members of both parties allowed our country to be ripped off by our trading partners, especially China, who dumped steel into our markets and slapped tariffs on our products.” And a Maine lobsterman recounted not voting for Trump in 2016 because he was skeptical of Trump’s conservative bona fides but ultimately becoming convinced.

The emphasis on regular people — many of them notably from key electoral areas like these — seemed likely more effective than the focus on members of Trump’s family, who have been extremely prominent at the convention thus far and dominated Tuesday night especially.