The controversy deals one of the biggest potential blows to President Donald Trump’s decision to hold an in-person nominating convention during a pandemic. The proposal has already been beset by concerns over safety and reports of high-profile Republicans declining to attend.
Williams, a Republican, wouldn’t definitively say there is no way the event could be held. But he said he had grave doubts, especially in an era of heightened protests concerning police use of force.
Williams said the event, scheduled for Aug. 24-27, was announced in June, giving his agency little time to plan and prepare. The Republican National Committee has not yet nailed down which convention events will be at which venues, making it more challenging. And a pledged $ 50 million grant has been paired back to $ 33 million and, Williams said, there are strings attached that make letting contracts too difficult.
RNC spokesperson Mandi Merritt said in a statement that the RNC is working closely with local leaders in Jacksonville on planning for the convention, including on health and security measures. She added that the Department of Justice will provide millions of dollars via a safety grant.
“Jacksonville has accommodated upwards of 70,000 people for football games and other events, and we are confident in state, local and federal officials to be able to ensure a safe event for our attendees,” she said.
The venue was changed to Jacksonville from Charlotte, N.C., after that state’s Democratic-led government clashed with Trump over safety concerns over holding a convention during a pandemic. Trump insisted he wanted a “full” convention at the time.
Trump has since backed off his demand for a full-blown convention, but the proposal has continued to meet logistical hurdles as the RNC has failed to commit on specifics, such as whether Trump would have his nomination at an indoor arena or an outdoor arena. The RNC could not immediately be reached.
Meanwhile, Florida has become a breeding ground for coronavirus infections. That has made it difficult to recruit more law enforcement officers to come to the event.
In early July, the Florida Sheriffs Association asked departments in the state’s 67 counties for 2,000 officers, according to an email obtained by POLITICO. But only 500 were able to go, Bob Gualtieri, president of the association and Pinellas County Sheriff told POLITICO over the weekend. Williams also asked the Florida Police Chiefs Association for help, but he’s still coming up short.
“We do need law enforcement officers and we’ve gotten commitments, but not to the level that we thought we needed. And a lot of that is people having virus concerns from their communities, and I understand that,” Williams said.
“But there’s a lot of things that need to happen: an event schedule nailed down, and being able to sign contracts and spend money so that we can prepare for this event. And none of that has happened yet,” he said. “So here we are inside of 40 days, and I haven’t really pulled the trigger on anything RNC-related when it comes to finances or contracts and so, you know, only related to security, mind you, nothing, nothing related to any of this.”
Other sheriffs told POLITICO they sympathize with Williams.
Martin County Sheriff Bill Snyder said he’s sending about 20 officers but wouldn’t question the convention happening. He’s committed to helping Williams.
“It’s like a gun fight. I don’t think we should have gun fights. But if you have one, I’m coming,” Snyder said. “It will be a noxious brew of vitriol and emotion.”
Volusia County Sheriff Mike Chitwood said Trump’s security detail already makes such big demands of local law enforcement that it makes it difficult to supply security for him, which Chitwood witnessed firsthand during the president’s recent trip to Daytona Beach.
Chitwood said he didn’t believe the event should be held and said the RNC is struggling to do the impossible.
“There’s a fear of telling him no because anyone who tells the president no, it’s like, off with their heads,” Chitwood said.
Chitwood, who committed to sending about two dozen officers, said conventions need months of planning “and that’s without Covid-19.”
“There are going to be tons of issues,” he added. “This has something that has never ever happened before. And for some reason common sense is being thrown out the window.”
Williams referenced the lack of time repeatedly, saying that even if he started planning in June, it would have been difficult to pull off.
“At virtually 75 days it was an incredible lift, and everything would have to be perfect. And needless to say it has not,” Williams said. “So you know with that, we can’t pull it off in any kind of current configuration. But again, it’s not my job to plan the [convention]. It’s my job to be able to provide security for it, but I can’t do it right now in this time frame with this current configuration of the event.”