CLEVELAND — Patricia Smith stood on the stage of the Republican National Convention and emotionally blamed the death of her son in Benghazi, Libya, on Hillary Clinton. Suddenly, Fox News Channel cut away to interview the party’s presumptive presidential nominee, Donald Trump.
For nearly 11 minutes on Monday night, Trump overshadowed his party’s convention with a telephone interview that provided no major news but allowed him to brag about his primary victories, attack the news media and plug his wife’s upcoming speech.
This was supposed to be the week that Trump finally stopped fighting for the nomination and pivoted to the general-election campaign. This was supposed to be the week that he stayed in the wings, like presumptive nominees usually do, and allowed others to introduce him and explain why he should be president. It was supposed to be the week that Trump showed voters a softer, more personable and compassionate side.
But on the first day of the four-day GOP convention, Trump showed that he’s unable to yield the stage and a prime-time audience to others.
He started the day by calling Fox News Channel to accuse President Obama of using “body language” that encourages racial division and anti-police sentiments that lead to the killing of police officers. For the rest of the day, he boomeranged between the spotlight and the shadows — disappearing for hours, then reemerging with an angry tweet or an unexpected interview. There was even a pre-taped interview that aired on the Golf Channel during the convention.
Late Monday night, Trump’s silhouette appeared on the convention stage as Queen’s “We Are the Champions” boomed. He repeatedly told the crowd that “we’re going to win so big.” He then gave his wife a 29-word introduction and finally ceded the stage.
Melania Trump told the audience about her journey to the United States from Slovenia and reflected on who her husband is outside the spotlight.
“He is tough when he has to be, but he is also kind and fair and caring,” Melania Trump said in her prepared remarks. “This kindness is not always noted, but it is there for all to see. That is one reason I fell in love with him to begin with.”
That’s the version of Trump that party leaders and his allies want the nation to fall in love with. A major question hanging over this week’s convention in Cleveland is: Which Trump will show up?
He was originally scheduled to speak only on Thursday, the final night of the gathering, and he has consulted with two of Ronald Reagan’s former speechwriters to prepare. But then he announced Monday morning that he would appear that night in support of his wife — and then his voice boomed over the convention as he did the interview with Fox.
David Bossie, the president of the conservative Citizens United group and a convention delegate from Maryland, said that he met Trump years ago while raising money for Washington Children’s Hospital and that the Trump he knows is conscientious and kind, putting his family first.
“The human side of Donald Trump doesn’t get a lot of coverage, because it’s all about the caricature that the media wants to make of him,” said Bossie, who recently started a super PAC to support Trump. “This gives him an opportunity to have a reset moment, for him to show himself without any filters.”
The day started with a 7 a.m. phone call to “Fox and Friends.”
Trump again accused Obama of causing “tremendous divide in this country” and fueling anti-police sentiment. Then he seemed to suggest that Obama approved of cop killings.
“I watch the president and sometimes the words are okay, but you just look at the body language — there’s something going on,” Trump said. “Look, there’s something going on. And the words are not often okay, by the way.”
But Trump acknowledged that a number of unarmed black men have been targeted or killed by police, saying there is “definitely something going on there also.”
“And that has to do with training and it has to do with something, but there is something going on that maybe . . . we can’t recognize it or we can’t see it unless you’re black,” he said. “And it’s an experience, there’s no question about that.”
Then he plugged his wife’s evening speech at the convention, saying she planned to talk about “her love of the country” and how she “gained legal status, as the expression goes.”
“She’s a terrific person and a terrific woman,” Trump said. “And I’ll bet she gives a great speech. She’s worked hard on it.”
But would Trump be able to fully yield the stage and the spotlight to his wife and other speakers?
“I’d love to be there when my wife speaks,” Trump responded, seeming to debate his decision aloud while live on Fox. “So the answer is yes. I will be there.”
Then Trump hung up and, uncharacteristically, vanished from public view for six hours.
He resurfaced at 1:28 p.m. with a tweet that confirmed his early-morning gossip and that read as though it were written by someone other than Trump.
“Looking forward to being at the convention tonight to watch all of the wonderful speakers including my wife, Melania,” the tweet said. “Place looks beautiful!”
Trump then retreated back into the shadows — even as war broke out on the convention center floor as #NeverTrump activists again tried unsuccessfully to derail his coronation.
Trump reemerged at 4:48 p.m. with a tweet that showcased his usual style — a liberal use of uppercase letters, two exclamation points, a reference to himself in the third person and an attack on a “dumb” enemy.
“@CNN is the worst,” he wrote, lashing out at a network he had sworn off watching. “They go to their dumb, one-sided panels when a podium speaker is for Trump! VAST MAJORITY want: Make America Great Again!”
Within a few hours, he had boarded his private plane in New York, arriving in Cleveland and talking on the phone with Fox News’s Bill O’Reilly.
Trump said chants by protesters calling for the death of police officers is “not acceptable” and declared himself “the least racist person that there is.” He said that “60 Minutes” had recently been fair to him but that reports that he was uneasy about picking Indiana Gov. Mike Pence as his running mate were “pure fiction by the press.” He attacked a former rival, Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who has declined to attend the convention.
“Look, I beat him very badly,” Trump said. “I won 38 states. I won the highest number of votes in the history of the Republican Party — second was very, very far away. I beat him very, very soundly. . . . If I were him and got beaten that badly, I probably wouldn’t show up either.”
Trump then plugged the speech that his wife would make, saying, later in the night and said he would do his best to not overshadow her“I’m going to give her a very quick, brief introduction, because this is about her. This evening is really about her.”
Robert Costa contributed to this report from Cleveland.