Updated August 28, 2020 - 4:56 pm
Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak watched closely as a faith-based campaign event for President Donald Trump rolled into a Las Vegas hotel early this month, expecting more people to show up than allowed under a statewide rule meant to control the spread of the coronavirus.
The governor’s office and some members of the City Council wanted it shut down, records show. A city business licensing employee worried that other council members might be resistant to any action.
“Before we go stepping into a political landfill with some of our Council people … I want to be sure that (Planning Director) Robert (Summerfield) is ok with us going over there to even address this,” the employee wrote in an email to other city officials.
Hundreds of pages of city correspondence obtained by the Las Vegas Review-Journal give a behind-the-scenes view into how city officials enforced the governor’s order. Emails show officials intent on treating a politically sensitive event like any other as “Evangelicals for Trump” facilitators defied their warnings in defense against a purported affront to the First Amendment.
Commission chairwoman tips off city
The campaign rally and ostensible protest from Aug. 6 has since prompted a nearly $11,000 state fine against the Ahern Hotel and Convention Center, where it was held. And the nongaming hotel this week sued Nevada, Sisolak and Las Vegas over the city’s action to cite hotel owner Don Ahern and fine him $250 as the event got underway.
Featuring the president’s personal pastor, Paula White, the rally was allowed to proceed and drew more than 700 people on the hotel’s first floor by state estimates, far surpassing the state’s 50-person limit for public and private events.
Clark County Commission Chairwoman Marilyn Kirkpatrick, who said she alerted the city to the event three weeks beforehand, explained this week that she and Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department Sheriff Joe Lombardo at the time worked with Ahern to ensure no more events of that size would happen on the premises.
“Once it’s already so far into it, how do you move people along?” she said Wednesday about the prospect of shutting down the rally. “Do I beat them with sticks and move them out of the building?”
Kirkpatrick, a Democrat, first raised alarm about the event to the city during a Multi-Agency Coordination Center meeting, a regular gathering of regional officials responsible for handling the local response to the pandemic. She said she saw the rally advertising on Facebook, one of the social media platforms she regularly checks for events across all cities that might possibly flout regulations.
“It had nothing to do that it was a Trump venue,” she said, although she noted that Ahern had expressed his belief to her that enforcement was political.
An issue of the First Amendment
The governor’s office showed considerable interest in how the city planned to address the event. Senior adviser Scott Gilles wrote city officials the morning of the rally to check in: “Governor keeps asking for updates.”
The city had started communicating with an Ahern hotel representative at least three days before the rally, requesting a detailed operation and site plan to identify how it would comply with the crowd-size restriction, emails show. Two days before the rally, the city issued a courtesy notice and then a warning on the morning of, underscoring the likely violation and its consequence.
By then, the hotel was casting the event to the city as a peaceful protest for the right to assemble and exercise freedom of religion, set against the backdrop of the state’s controversial inclusion of churches within its crowd-size rule.
Thus, the hotel said, the protest was exempt from the regulation, although it vowed to enact stringent public health measures and keep attendance to no more than 50 percent occupancy — a restriction imposed on restaurants and retail businesses that the hotel argued should apply to it, too.
“To be clear, You are denying us the Right to a 1st Amendment Protest,” Keith Wright, president and general manager of the Ahern, wrote to city officials.
Within days, Ahern twice under scrutiny
Two city business licensing employees, accompanied by Metro police officers, arrived at the hotel 20 minutes before the event began, where one employee using a manual counter marked more than 1,100 attendees, much higher than the state’s estimate, emails show. A citation and civil fine were issued, and the employees and police left the scene.
But the governor’s office and unidentified council members called Metro inquiring why they were not shutting down the event. The agency said Friday it does not make such a determination but only provides safety for a city or county business licensing officer. Pushed by the county to return to the hotel, police officers reportedly met with a member of the Trump campaign and an event organizer, leading to a potentially heated verbal exchange, according to city records.
The rally, which appeared to have all the trappings for a political firestorm, resulted in tough declarations the following day: Sisolak castigated the Trump campaign for ignoring guidance from the president’s own medical experts, and the campaign rebuked the governor for overreaching policy and blamed “liberal” local and state governments for politically motivated efforts to derail the event.
Then, only three days after “Evangelicals for Trump,” the Ahern Hotel again found itself in hot water with the crowd-size rule: Organizers of the Mrs. Nevada America pageant inside the venue were forced to remove spectators to comply. It is unclear whether another fine or citation had been issued.
The governor’s office, the hotel and the city each declined to comment for this story, as did Councilwoman Michele Fiore, who is a Nevada GOP national committeewoman and has been clear about her intentions to work to re-elect Trump. The Trump campaign did not respond to requests for comment by deadline.