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The Memo: Talk of Trump-free GOP convention grows as sentencing looms

Former President Trump may find himself courting controversy at next month’s Republican National Convention, and not just because he reportedly called the host city, Milwaukee, “terrible” earlier this week.

NBC News reports that convention planners are making backup plans in case President Trump is unable to attend the convention in person.

Trump’s New York hush-money trial is scheduled for July 11, four days before the Republican National Convention opens and seven days before the former president is virtually certain to be selected as the nominee.

Judge Juan Marchan could impose prison time on Trump, but many legal experts believe house arrest is more likely given that this is a first-time offender, meaning Trump would likely address the convention virtually from Mar-a-Lago.

The topic is clearly sensitive: NBC’s report also included a quote from a senior Trump adviser denying that any “options” were planned other than the former president accepting the nomination in person in Milwaukee.

However, the news outlet also reported that “in preparation for the possibility of house arrest, the Republican National Committee has already set up a convention-themed stage at Mar-a-Lago and a giant screen at Milwaukee’s Fiserv Forum.”

Conventions have become less significant and less dramatic in recent years, but a situation in which Trump is unable to accept the nomination in person due to some criminal conviction would again put the country in an unprecedented situation.

For Democrats, this will be a golden opportunity to emphasize their case that the former president is clearly unfit to hold high office: An Associated Press/NORC poll released earlier this week found that 85% of Democrats support convicting Trump in the New York case.

But a Trump-free Milwaukee convention may just as well energize the former president’s MAGA supporters who fervently believe he harmed them: The same Associated Press poll found that only 15% of Republicans supported his recent conviction.

If Trump is unable to attend the convention, “he will certainly take advantage of the fact that ‘evil powers’ – the media, the judicial system and the Democratic Party – are conspiring to stop him from claiming the nomination in person,” said Toby Berkowitz, a professor emeritus at Boston University who specializes in political communications.

Berkowitz added that in such a situation, Trump “could argue that this is interference with the electoral process, that the Democrats have prevented a bona fide candidate from another party from speaking at their convention and claiming their nomination.”

The convention issue adds another twist to the drama as Trump awaits his fate at the hands of the judges. Both Marchand and his daughter Lauren are frequent targets of Trump’s criticism, as he claims he has been treated unfairly.

Trump was convicted in late May of 34 felony counts of falsifying business records in a case that revolved around a $130,000 payment made to adult film star Stormy Daniels in the closing days of the 2016 campaign to stop her from going public with a story about her having sex with Trump at a celebrity golf tournament a decade earlier.

Predictably, Trump reacted strongly to the ruling.

The short-term political impact of the guilty verdict is complicated. The verdict set off a tsunami of fundraising donations, totaling about $70 million in 48 hours, according to the Trump campaign. Meanwhile, some polls have shown President Biden gaining a slight advantage, essentially turning a race where Trump had a slim lead into a tie.

Some Republicans also argue that the political impact of a convention without Trump is too difficult to predict.

“I don’t think anybody is smart enough to judge what the impact would be if Trump can’t be there in person,” said Doug Heye, a former communications director for the Republican National Committee.

Haye added: “It’s the wrestling announcers of the political world who say, ‘It’s great for my camp!’ And, you know, it always ends up being everything great for their camp.”

For now, the Trump campaign may take some solace in the fact that the controversy over Trump’s comments about Milwaukee is dying down.

Reports that Trump called the city “horrible” during a closed-door meeting with Republican lawmakers on Thursday sparked immediate outrage.

The furor was fuelled by some Republican lawmakers who said Trump was only referring to the city’s crime rate, others that he was talking about the city’s role in the 2020 election, and even denied making such comments in the first place.

The comments could certainly resonate in Wisconsin, which Biden won by about half a percentage point in 2020 and is expected to be a key battleground state again this year.

But nationally, most expect the story to fade away.

“Would I have advised Trump to say that? No,” Hay said. “But at this point, there’s very little that Donald Trump would say that would surprise people. If the Access Hollywood tape didn’t ring true, then I don’t think ‘I hate Milwaukee’ rings true.”

This note is a reporting column by Niall Stanage.