Unpredictability Is Hallmark of Convention to Crown Donald Trump
JEREMY W. PETERS and ASHLEY PARKER
© 2016 New York Times News Service
With just more than two weeks until the Republican National Convention opens in Cleveland, Donald Trump’s preparations for what is usually a polished and highly choreographed affair are looking a lot like his campaign itself: chaotic, freewheeling and unpredictable.
Much of the program remains in flux, including who will speak, how and when Trump will arrive, and what he will say when he does.
And after months of promising that his convention would be special, and not “boring” like previous ones, Trump says he is now embracing a less-is-more approach.
One thing there will be less of, which might come as a surprise to anyone expecting all the brashness and ubiquity of Trump branding, is the candidate himself.
“What they’ve asked me to do is to speak all three nights. I turned it down,” he said in an interview from his Fifth Avenue office one recent afternoon.
Not that people aren’t clamoring to see more of him, of course. “Everybody wants that,” he insisted. But he said he demurred at the risk of looking too self-absorbed. “I don’t want people to think I’m grandstanding — which I’m not,” he said, before adding, almost reflexively, “But it would get high ratings.”
In fact, the convention Trump described sounded rather humdrum, at least by his standards. He promised it would be fun — but not too fun — tasteful, serious and on message. And while he dismissed recent Republican conventions as lackluster affairs, he said he would not attempt anything too loud and bold.
“There’s a lot of sameness in conventions,” Trump said. “At the same time you don’t necessarily want to reinvent the wheel. You don’t want to make it so different that it’s no longer a convention.”
Originally, the campaign had hoped to keep Trump’s vice-presidential choice as secret until the convention, announcing it in Cleveland as a big reveal. But now, an aide said, the thinking has changed, and the team expects to announce Trump’s running mate before the convention.
The change in tone and approach is consistent with the efforts by his aides and other Republicans to make Trump a more conventional candidate. But another factor is beyond the campaign’s control: its inability to persuade party leaders and celebrities to be seen there.
Many well-known political figures — governors, senators, Republican Party elders and rising stars — have already said they will sit this convention out, turned off by Trump’s divisive and disruptive politics. Some delegates have even resigned their spots in protest.
Trump has also said he would try to prevent his former rivals for the nomination like Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and Gov. John R. Kasich of Ohio from speaking until they endorsed him.
As for the featured guests who would be given speaking roles, Trump has said he will be contacting major sports figures and other celebrities. At least one, former Chicago Bears coach Mike Ditka, has turned him down, saying a large convention speech “isn’t really my style.” He is also thinking about asking Serena Williams, Don King and Dana White, president of the Ultimate Fighting Championship, to play a role of some kind in Cleveland.
Other people he has asked outside of politics, he said, have expressed nervousness.
“It’s not their wheelhouse,” he said, adding that they were all “great winners.” But he declined to name any other names. “They may do it. But they’ll be nervous as hell.”
Trump did say he expected at least one senator to speak, Jeff Sessions of Alabama, an outspoken opponent of immigration who has been one of the New York developer’s most loyal supporters. Trump also said he would like to see Sarah Palin play a role because she endorsed him over Cruz, a point of pride for Trump.
His children, who have acted as surrogates for him on the campaign trail, will speak. His wife, Melania, is also considering it. “She’s actually writing some things up right now,” he said.
But if the goal of a political convention is to reintroduce a well-known figure to American voters and leave them with a fresh and flattering impression, Trump has a uniquely difficult challenge to pull off. And part of that challenge stems from his own unfamiliarity with the convention process.
At one point, two aides confirmed, Trump was not even aware that the event had to be held in Cleveland, a decision made almost two years ago by the Republican National Committee.
Much of what Trump and his team have decided is what will be off the agenda, not what will be on it.
When he saw the drawings for the stage he would speak on, Trump sent them back. “I didn’t like the shape,” he said. “Too straight. Too nothing. Didn’t have the drama.”
(BEGIN OPTIONAL TRIM.)
As he kicked around proposals for how to make his grand entrance, he nixed the idea of riding into Cleveland on a train. “It’s been done,” he said.
And he has also ruled out speaking on the final night of the convention from an open-air stadium instead of from inside Quicken Loans Arena — too expensive, he worried — even though he was intrigued by the idea of flying in and landing on the stage in a helicopter. “Pretty cool,” he conceded.
The campaign also had discussed the idea of having fireworks inside the arena, but that proved unworkable.
Mark Burnett, the television producer who was responsible for “The Apprentice,” the television show that catapulted Trump to new levels of fame and exposure, said in an interview that he had not been asked to play a role. Besides, he added, he doubted he could be of much use, having never even seen a convention himself.
“To be honest, I’ve never really even watched those things. It’s filled with crazy flags and giant hats and it’s a big party?” he asked. “As a British person, I don’t even understand it. If it was a sport, it’s like trying to explain baseball to a British person. I’m pretty smart and if I had to sit down with you guys right now, I could not explain to you how it works.”
Then he asked, echoing his friend Trump, “Do they get very good ratings?”
(END OPTIONAL TRIM.)
So far, much of the programming Trump has decided on is safe — a nod to how his campaign is hoping to evolve, from the teleprompters he increasingly uses for major policy speeches to the more streamlined, rapid-response emails his team now sends out.
But for someone who is not known for hewing very closely or willingly to a script, the challenges of writing one are immense. And the role is difficult to adjust to, not just for Trump but for his supporters, who have come to expect someone unscripted and unpredictable.
The way Trump is talking these days, they may come away disappointed.
“I want it to be on message. I want it to be fun. And you have to put all of those things together,” he said. “But the on message is really the most important thing.”