Mike Pence emerged from President Trump's long shadow Wednesday night to accept the nomination for vice president, delivering a revisionist case for their management of the COVID-19 pandemic and offering unwavering support for law enforcement amid growing protests over the police shooting of another Black man.
The rising calls for racial justice and an end to police abuses prompted the cancellation of professional basketball and baseball games and formed a chaotic backdrop to the third night of the Republican National Convention, which took place as a monstrous hurricane roared toward the Gulf Coast, threatening widespread devastation.
Speaking from historic Ft. McHenry in Baltimore, Pence elided over the multiple crises convulsing the country, offering gauzy claims of success and criticizing Democrats for a convention last week that focused on the grim realities of the coronavirus that has killed 180,000 Americans and put millions out of work in the last six months.
"Where Joe Biden sees American darkness, we see American greatness," Pence said, in one of several harsh attacks against the Democratic nominee. "In these challenging times, our country needs a president who believes in America."
Unlike all but one other speaker, Pence acknowledged the looming threat from Hurricane Laura and urged residents along the Gulf Coast to stay safe as the most powerful storm to hit the U.S. this year was poised to crash into the the upper Texas coast and western Louisiana within hours. Up to 20 million people were potentially in its path.
But Pence stuck to the script on matters of crime and punishment, declaring that he and Trump support "peaceful protest" while demanding that violent protesters and those who damage statues be "prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law," adding an appeal to those angered by efforts to remove Confederate statues.
"If you want a president who falls silent when our heritage is demeaned or insulted, then he’s not your man," Pence said.
He called for an end to violence in cities that have seen persistent protests over a summer of activism, but lauded police officers as "the best of us" and suggested — falsely — that Biden supports defunding law enforcement.
"The hard truth is: You won't be safe in Joe Biden's America," Pence said. "Under President Trump, we will stand with those who stand on the thin blue line, and we're not going to defund the police — not now, not ever."
To some extent, the growing uproar over the police shooting of 29-year-old Jacob Blake in front of his children in Kenosha, Wis., on Sunday overshadowed Pence's comments on urban unrest, and may complicate the president's reelection strategy.
Trump, who flew to Baltimore for Pence's speech and greeted him on stage for a rendition of the national anthem, had planned to run on his economic record before it was ravaged by the pandemic.
As millions of Americans lost their jobs and a deep recession set in, he shifted to a muscular "law and order" message, signaling that he was willing to use armed force if necessary to put down violent protests, or even peaceful protests — while stoking fears of crime and portraying protesters as vigilantes.
But the video of Blake being shot multiple times in the back has reenergized activists demanding police reforms three months after the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis spurred a national reckoning on race.
On Wednesday, Trump tweeted that he would send National Guard troops to Kenosha to quash any violence arising from protests, prompting the state's Democratic governor, Tony Evers, to agree to request them. But there were signs that the calls for police reform could not be ignored.
As part of the backlash against the Blake shooting, the NBA suspended all playoff games Wednesday following the Milwaukee Bucks' decision not to take the floor for their game. At least three Major League Baseball games, including the Dodgers game against the San Francisco Giants, were also canceled after players opted not to play in protest.
But the first speakers to take the stage Wednesday night did not acknowledge the fast-changing events, which included the arrest Wednesday of Kyle Rittenhouse, 17, who was charged with two counts of murder for allegedly killing two protesters in Kenosha with an assault-style rifle.
Rittenhouse left a trail of social media posts in which he identified himself as a supporter of pro-police causes and of the president, including a video he took from the front row of a Trump rally in January.
South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem warned that America would be lost if Democrats were in charge, even as she pointed to the unrest that has exploded on Trump's watch.
"The violence is rampant. There’s looting, chaos, destruction and murder," Noem said, blaming the situation on local Democratic officials. "People that can afford to flee have fled. But the people that can’t — good, hardworking Americans — are left to fend for themselves."
Over the first two nights, RNC speakers had taken little notice of the Blake shooting, despite national outrage, and instead followed Trump's lead in portraying the overwhelmingly peaceful crowds who have protested police abuses, especially the shooting of unarmed Black men, as violent mobs terrorizing American cities.
"We will NOT stand for looting, arson, violence, and lawlessness on American streets," Trump tweeted Wednesday.
Biden addressed the shooting — and rejected Trump's false claims that he supports violence and wants to defund the police — in a video released by his campaign Wednesday.
"Protesting brutality is a right and absolutely necessary," Biden said, speaking to the camera. "But burning down communities is not protest, it's needless violence — violence that endangers lives, violence that guts businesses and shutters businesses that serve the community."
Trump was already trailing in polls, and his political challenges seemed to grow more difficult in real time Wednesday.
Throughout the 2½ hours of programming, much of which was taped in advance, there were scant mentions of Hurricane Laura — and nothing said about climate change — with only the live weather radar showing the storm's eye in a tiny box in the bottom corner of the screen on some network broadcasts.
During the 2008 and 2012 Republican conventions, party officials canceled one night of programming as hurricanes hammered first Louisiana and then Florida four years later. But party officials suggested Wednesday that Laura, just shy of becoming a Category 5 storm, would not stop this week's mostly virtual festivities.
If the predicted ferocious storm surge and high winds devastate a swath of the Gulf Coast, it could potentially create a split-screen that casts the president, who is scheduled to give his acceptance speech Thursday night from the White House, as uncaring during a national emergency.
Pence delivered his speech from Ft. McHenry, the site of the War of 1812 battle that inspired Francis Scott Key to write the poem that became "The Star Spangled Banner."
The coastal fort, which successfully defended Baltimore Harbor from a British naval attack, was chosen to underscore the night's theme, "Land of Heroes," which Trump has long defined in militaristic terms.
The president, who avoided military service in Vietnam, put Reps. Dan Crenshaw of Texas and Lee Zeldin of New York, both military veterans, center stage Wednesday night.
Crenshaw praised Trump for intimidating Iran, even though his pressure campaign has failed to bring Tehran to the bargaining table, and for overseeing the eradication of Islamic State's caliphate. He credited Trump with "rebuilding our military so we’d have what we needed to finish the mission."
The militant group appears far from finished, however. A United Nations report released this week estimates about 10,000 Islamic State fighters remain in Iraq and Syria, and said that attacks by the militants have "increased significantly" this year and that they have "relaunched" a rural insurgency.
Like the convention's first two nights, the lineup also included a family member and members of the White House staff, who do not traditionally speak at political conventions: Lara Trump, Trump's daughter in-law, Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany and Kellyanne Conway, a top White House advisor who managed his 2016 campaign and who announced her resignation last week.
Trump has faced criticism for allegedly violating the Hatch Act by utilizing government resources and officials for partisan purposes at the convention. On Tuesday, he held a televised naturalization ceremony and pardoned a bank robber at the White House. Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo interrupted a visit to the Middle East to address the RNC from Jerusalem, sparking a House ethics investigation.