The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump said ‘we can’t do social distancing’ at convention as he made personal appeal to North Carolina governor

President Trump speaks in the White House Rose Garden on Monday.
President Trump speaks in the White House Rose Garden on Monday. (Tom Brenner/Reuters)
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President Trump made his demands for the planned Republican National Convention in Charlotte quite clear to North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper, who had balked at agreeing to a mass gathering of tens of thousands of delegates, allies and media.

In a Friday phone call, Trump told the Democratic governor he would accept his party’s nomination in an arena filled with cheering supporters, coronavirus pandemic or not.

He pulled from his own history, citing the June 2015 event at which he announced his candidacy for president after gliding into the lobby of Trump Tower in New York.

“Since the day I came down the escalator, I’ve never had an empty seat and I find the biggest stadiums,” he told Cooper on Friday, according to two people familiar with the call who requested anonymity to share its contents. “I don’t want to be sitting in a place that’s 50 percent empty,” Trump said.

Trump’s obsession with crowd size and the spectacle he insisted should greet his renomination came on a day during which extraordinary pressure was building on other fronts, as protesters against police violence began to mass near the White House and in cities and towns across America.

Trump, in the roughly 15-minute conversation, casually dismissed any health concerns that might arise from squeezing thousands of supporters — wearing masks only if they choose to — inside an arena to hear his acceptance speech. The full details of the call have not previously been reported. The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The president’s call to Cooper — who unsuccessfully pleaded, by praising Trump, that the president abide by restrictions set by health officials — came on the same day Trump called Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, to see whether he might host the convention on Trump’s terms.

The call marked an extension of the president’s war with Democratic governors, who he claims have moved too slowly to reopen the country after months of self-imposed quarantines meant to slow the virus’s spread. Cooper, like other governors and health officials — including those from Trump’s own administration — continues to call for cautious reopenings, the wearing of masks when near others, social distancing, and curbs on mass gatherings.

Cooper has insisted that it is too early to determine what will be safe for the convention, scheduled to be held Aug. 24-27. Trump had a blunt response to Cooper’s reminders about the potential cost of crowding so many people into a closed arena.

“We can’t do social distancing,” the president said, according to the two people familiar with the call.

The Friday conversation was the second time that week that Trump inserted himself into the middle of a two-year planning process for his party’s convention and derailed ongoing talks about how to safely hold a mass gathering in the midst of a pandemic. He began the week with a Memorial Day broadside against Cooper in which he mocked the governor as still being “in shutdown mood.”

The fallout has sent RNC officials shuttling around the country to consider other options. Possible replacements include Jacksonville and Orlando in Florida, Nashville, New Orleans and even Las Vegas, the only other city that submitted a formal bid to host the convention back in 2018. Also in play are Phoenix, the site of a major anti-Trump rally in 2017, and Dallas, according to a Republican operative.

A Republican familiar with the talks said RNC officials are asking those cities to approve the convention on Trump’s terms: without social distancing or required masks. As those talks proceed, the convention host committee pushed Thursday for a meeting in Charlotte to “resolve open questions as expeditiously as possible,” according to a copy of the invitation.

Those familiar with the call who recounted it for The Post described it as cordial, even as Trump pushed the Democratic governor to overrule public health concerns and accelerate reopening.

“We’re in a different situation now,” Cooper said at one point.

He asked Trump to allow the RNC to negotiate a scaled down event.

Trump replied: “We can’t do scaled down.”

At one point during the call, Cooper pushed back, according to the two people familiar with the conversation. He asked Trump whether he was worried about his supporters, and the possibility that they would become sick.

“No, I’m not because we’ve learned a lot about it,” Trump said, referring to the coronavirus.

He asserted that older people with underlying conditions are more susceptible to it, the two sources said. Trump added that the infection rate “is so small” and offered that each participant could be tested and receive a stamp of some kind showing the negative result.

Cooper, praising Trump as “smart,” countered that the president had curtailed his campaign rallies since the pandemic exploded in the United States, hewing to medical advice.

“I gave it up,” Trump said, according to the two people familiar with the call. But, he added: “I think we’ll start them very soon.”

The president said he was confident that he would be able to find a second home for the convention that would allow full attendance without restrictions such as masks and social distancing.

“I believe other states will do it,” Trump said, according to the two people familiar with the conversation. “Otherwise, we’ll cancel the whole damn thing.”

Trump wants a back-to-normal convention, one that could be the largest political gathering since late winter, to represent the nation’s recovery from the twin health and economic crises that have threatened his reelection.

Democrats, wrestling with the same dilemma of balancing their marquee summer event with health concerns, are already planning a significantly smaller convention. Their mantra that they will abide by the recommendations of health officials underscores their insistence that the nation should be governed by science and safety, and putting health above political opportunity.

Only two cities offered real bids to host the Republican convention in 2018, with Las Vegas proposing a plan that lacked backing from city leaders or tourism officials. Charlotte only went forward with the convention after a contentious city council meeting that had over 100 people debating whether the city should host such an event.

But if the desire for an economic boon as a result of the convention won out then, the dynamic has since shifted.

On May 22, Cooper, along with North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Mandy Cohen, spoke with Republican Party chair Ronna McDaniel to discuss how to proceed with the convention. RNC officials discussed holding a limited convention to accommodate safety concerns, according to an official familiar with the conversation.

North Carolina officials were taken by surprise on Memorial Day when Trump aimed his critical tweets at Cooper. The tweet launched a serious discussion among RNC officials about moving the gathering, and by the following day, both DeSantis and Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp (R) were publicly offering their states as hosts.

At a news conference in North Carolina, Cooper said he would be guided by public health officials as he determined the next steps. “It’s okay for political conventions to be political, but pandemic response cannot be,” Cooper said.

Trump replied that he needed to know “within a week” and the RNC set a June 3 deadline for North Carolina officials to approve their convention plans.

The RNC followed up with a letter to Cooper that laid out Trump’s position: “A full convention entailed 19,000 delegates, alternate delegates, staff, volunteers, elected officials and guests inside the Spectrum Center,” according to the letter. “We are planning a full convention starting Aug. 24.”

The letter included a pledge to conduct temperature checks, test before and during the convention, and make masks available. But it did not mention requiring their use or social distancing.

Cooper, who will stand for reelection in November, has come under criticism from some for being too deferential to public health experts who they say are single-mindedly focused on the risk associated with the virus and not appropriately considering the impact to the economy.

“I think that it would be the MAGA rally to end all MAGA rallies,” said Tariq Bokhari, a Republican member of the Charlotte City Council. “I mean, everyone’s been cooped up.”

“He’s saying, ‘We’re just going to trust the medical professionals,’ ” Bokhari said. “And it’s like asking a lawyer, ‘Is this contract for our new product ready to send out?’ They’re going to keep saying, ‘Well, no, we need more time.’ ”

Bokhari added: “His leadership style is more of building consensus and looking for those specific experts to really make the call.”

He and other conservatives have noted that Cooper has been less focused on public health in the face of mass protests in North Carolina. “He’s been out there and there are pictures of him taking his mask off with crowds,” Bokhari said.

Business owners in Charlotte, already suffering from pandemic-forced closures, also are lamenting the potential loss of the convention.

“We’ve already been closed for months,” said Anthony Kearey, who owns five restaurants in Charlotte, including 204 North Kitchen & Cocktails, which is close to the convention site. “The RNC was the light at the end of the tunnel.”