WASHINGTON – At first, it was going to be easy.
President Donald Trump was going to roll into Charlotte, North Carolina, and give a rousing speech to Republican delegates who nominated him for a second term.
COVID-19 derailed that plan.
Then Trump planned to give his acceptance speech Aug. 27 at a sports arena in Jacksonville, Florida – and the pandemic thwarted that event, too.
A little more than three weeks out, the Trump campaign is scrambling to find a fresh option for what will probably be the most-watched speech of Trump’s reelection campaign.
Though the White House grounds have emerged as a favorite, advisers are considering historic sites in battleground states, mirroring an event on July 3 when Trump spoke at Mount Rushmore in South Dakota, according to aides familiar with the planning.
Republican strategist Scott Jennings said the COVID-19 pandemic has created problems for every event planner, and the president’s reelection campaign is no exception.
“A lot of things have been thrown into chaos, so I’m sympathetic,” he said.
Trump promoted the virtues of the White House during an interview Wednesday on “Fox & Friends,” saying he would “probably” deliver the speech there, noting that the venue would be the “easiest” and least-expensive option.
Trump said he was not “locked in” on that choice.
“I think it would be a very convenient location; it would be by far the least expensive,” Trump told a news conference Wednesday. “It would be very cost-conscious by comparison to any other location.”
Trump is pushing for a big event for his acceptance speech Aug. 27. He said Wednesday that other speeches, including by first lady Melania Trump, would be delivered from different locations.
In weeks of meetings, aides said, advisers have tossed around a number of possible backdrops – the Liberty Bell, Gettysburg, the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, a military facility – that could provide dramatic television pictures for Trump’s speech.
They have talked about a prominent battleground state, such as Florida or Pennsylvania.
Though some advisers are wary of Trump holding his speech in a city with a Democratic mayor such as Philadelphia, all of the potential sites outside the White House are shadowed by a familiar problem: COVID-19.
Many states have restrictions on crowd sizes and are wary of big events, so aides are looking for a unique way to present Trump’s speech. Trump hasn’t held a rally since his event in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in June, which drew a lower-than-expected turnout and fueled controversy given the health risks of large gatherings.
The acceptance speech, an opportunity for Trump to lay out a vision for his second term and reset a campaign struggling in battleground states against presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden, is separate from the scaled-back convention business meetings scheduled in Charlotte.
Democrats, who announced months ago that most of their convention will be virtual, faced similar logistical challenges. Biden’s campaign announced Wednesday that he scrapped plans to travel to Milwaukee to accept his party’s nomination and will deliver his speech from his home in Delaware.
Because of COVID-19 restrictions in North Carolina, a limited number of Republican delegates will hold small meetings designed to carry out essential party business, including the formal nomination of the GOP presidential nominee.
Trump is likely to attend the convention Aug. 24, the day of the nomination vote, but only to greet the delegates and thank them for their work, officials said.
Officials close to the president are interested in recapturing the energy they felt the president gained from the Mount Rushmore speech last month, a Republican with knowledge of the planning said on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal details.
One option that has been discussed is Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, site of a famed Civil War battle as well as the speech by President Abraham Lincoln honoring the dead and sanctifying the Union causes. Trump narrowly won Pennsylvania in 2016; polls show Biden with a single-digit lead there.
Aides plan “surprises” for the week leading up to Trump’s speech, including speeches from prominent Republicans such as Melania Trump. Though she enjoys support within the GOP, the first lady has rarely appeared on the campaign trail on her own or alongside the president.
If nothing works, Trump retains the reserve option: the White House.
It wouldn’t be a first. In 1940, President Franklin Roosevelt delivered a speech via radio to the Democratic convention that nominated him for an unprecedented third term.
Some ethics groups might object to the idea of using the White House for such a political event. The Hatch Act forbids government officials from engaging in political activity on government property, though the president is exempt from that law.
The White House is considered a residence rather than an office building.
Jordan Libowitz, communications director for the organization Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, said, “Giving a political speech of this magnitude and visibility on the White House grounds creates the appearance that it’s a government-sanctioned event, something multiple laws were written to avoid.”
Though the Hatch Act does not apply to the president, Libowitz noted that other government employees would likely be necessary to handle the event.
He added: “While many ethics laws, like the Hatch Act, do not apply to the president, they could apply to the other government employees who might be attending or working on the event.”
Trump dismissed those concerns Wednesday.
Some administration and campaign aides have questions about a White House acceptance speech: Could aides who work for the government legally plan and set up such an event? Or would campaign officials have to do that?
In addition to the closely watched convention speech, aides plan ways to satisfy Trump’s eagerness to get back out on the campaign trail. One likely way is an alternative form of the rallies the president enjoys so much, to be held at airports with a limited number of boisterous supporters.
Trump and his team road-tested the airport rally format last week in Tampa, Florida, where the president accepted an endorsement from the Florida Police Benevolent Association.
At Tampa Bay International Airport, a few hundred supporters – appropriately spaced out but few wearing masks – greeted Air Force One as it landed.
After strolling to a podium to the sounds of Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the U.S.A.,” Trump spent more than a half-hour extolling his record and bashing Biden – a message Trump is eager to deliver, no matter the venue.