Inside Trump’s About-Face on the Republican Convention in Jacksonville

But most of the president’s top political advisers, worried that the safety risks from the virus could cause the event to backfire, were in favor of canceling the entire four-day affair in Florida. (The first day’s events are being held in Charlotte.)

Inside the White House, there has been growing skepticism that any large-scale gathering could work, given the rise in coronavirus cases. Fueling those concerns were memories of the campaign’s disastrous rally in Tulsa, where Mr. Trump and his aides hyped the turnout only to find themselves speaking in front of an arena that was two-thirds empty. News that several campaign staff members had tested positive for the virus in Tulsa only added to the negative impression the rally created.

Aides have instead been trying to get Mr. Trump excited about tele-town halls, showing him that he could reach tens of thousands of people in a particular region without forcing them to leave their homes.

As the prospect of canceling the convention looked more and more likely to the small group of aides clued in, over the past few days, one White House official raised the question of sending inconsistent messages, asking how the president could continue pushing for schools to reopen if he was backing down from holding his own convention. Other aides, however, said opening schools was essential, and a mass gathering of Trump supporters — the majority of whom would be over 50 — was not, the people familiar with the discussions said.

Mr. Trump, officials said, was leaning toward changing his mind by Wednesday. That night, Ms. McDaniel, Mr. Stepien and Mr. Miller had a follow-up conversation among themselves and agreed that it seemed likely that the president would decide to shut it down after all, and began preparing for that outcome. But many of them have been operating in Mr. Trump’s orbit long enough to know that nothing is settled until the president himself makes his decision public.

For weeks, as the pandemic continued to spike in Florida, aides had presented Mr. Trump alternative scenarios. One plan discussed, according to someone involved in the conversations, was having three nights of the convention take place in different cities: the first lady, Melania Trump, would speak from Houston; Vice President Mike Pence would address a crowd in his home state, Indiana; and only Mr. Trump’s speech would take place in Jacksonville.

Proponents of that plan said a roving convention could have been spun as a powerful message about the country reopening everywhere, with the bonus of avoiding a single large crowd gathering together for four full days in one city.

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