In first convention appearance, Trump warns of 'rigged election'

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (Reuters) – President Donald Trump adopted a grim tone in remarks to Republicans who formally backed his bid for a second term on Monday, warning without evidence that he could face a “rigged election” in November.

Trump repeated his claim that voting by mail, a longstanding feature of American elections that is expected to be far more common during the coronavirus pandemic, could lead to an increase in fraud. Independent election security experts say voter fraud is quite rare in the United States.

Trump spoke in an unscheduled appearance on the first day of the sharply scaled-back Republican National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, after he received enough votes to formally win the nomination to take on his Democratic rival, former Vice President Joe Biden, in the Nov. 3 election.

“The only way they can take this election away from us is if this is a rigged election,” Trump said. “We’re going to win this election.”

Party members are meeting amid a pandemic that has killed here more than 176,000 Americans, erased millions of jobs and eroded the president’s standing among voters.

As he has done repeatedly, Trump described states’ responses to infections of COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus, in starkly partisan terms, casting lockdowns and other steps recommended by public health officials as attempts to influence voting in November.

“What they’re doing is using COVID to steal an election,” Trump said. “They’re using COVID to defraud the American people – all of our people – of a fair and free election.”

The in-person proceedings, a far smaller meeting than originally planned, still marked a contrast with Democrats, who opted for an almost entirely virtual format instead of gathering in the election battleground state of Wisconsin. That change was intended to reduce the risk of the virus being spread at the political event.

“We did this out of respect for your state,” said Trump, targeting his message at the people of North Carolina, which is expected to be competitive in the November election.

Trump earlier this year moved the convention to Florida, his newly adopted home state, to avoid restrictions on gatherings in North Carolina due to the coronavirus, then abandoned that plan when infection rates soared in Florida.

Biden, 77, is leading Trump, 74, in opinion polls. Biden and his fellow Democrats portrayed Trump as a force for darkness, chaos and incompetence during their convention, while stressing the Democrats’ diversity and values like “empathy” and “unity.”

Republicans said their convention would offer a more hopeful message, with an emphasis on “law and order,” gun rights, tax cuts and the “forgotten” men and women of America.

The party opted not to vote on a traditional platform document detailing its policy goals, instead saying that it supports what Trump is doing. Trump’s campaign released a series of bullet-point goals, including a promise to “create 10 million new jobs in 10 months.”

In another contrast with the Democratic event, which featured all three living former Democratic presidents, and prior nominees, the Republican event will not include speeches from that party’s past living president or candidates.

Neither former President George W. Bush nor 2012 Republican presidential nominee Senator Mitt Romney, who voted to convict Trump at the president’s impeachment trial, plan to speak. Also absent from the schedule are several Republicans facing close elections in November, including Senator Thom Tillis of North Carolina.

BREAK WITH TRADITION

With the pandemic not yet under control, good news has been in short supply for Trump. His performance as president was sharply criticized by Biden and former President Barack Obama at the Democratic convention.

Biden’s campaign said Trump would attempt to change the subject, delivering “more desperate, wild-eyed lies and toxic division, in vain attempts to distract from his mismanagement,” according to spokesman Andrew Bates.

“What they won’t hear is what American families have urgently needed and been forced to go without for over seven consecutive months: any coherent strategy for defeating the pandemic.”

The president, a former reality television star, plans to hold several live events here with in-person audiences during the Republican convention, in contrast to Democrats, who showed pre-taped segments or delivered speeches in mostly empty venues.

Trump’s planned daily speeches are a break with the tradition of the nominee keeping a low profile before an acceptance speech on the convention’s final night.

Overnight, demonstrators and law enforcement clashed for a third straight night near the Charlotte Convention Center with police using pepper spray on the crowd. The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department said in a statement that officers arrested five people late on Sunday.

On Tuesday, Trump’s wife, Melania, will give a speech from the White House, while Pence follows on Wednesday from Baltimore’s Fort McHenry historic site.

Trump will accept his party’s nomination on Thursday night before a crowd on the White House South Lawn. Democrats have criticized the move as a partisan use of public property.

“Trump has four days to make two cases: One is ‘we know what we are doing and have done a great job, obviously interrupted by the virus,’” said Constantin Querard, president of Grassroots Partners, an Arizona-based conservative political consultancy.

“And then you have to knock the Democratic ticket for being as far-left as they are,” he said.

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