EXCLUSIVE: Sean Parnell, a combat veteran, got the invite of his life to be a primetime speaker at the Republican National Convention (RNC) and said the experience was so "surreal" he didn't even realize it was over.
Parnell, a GOP congressional candidate in Pennsylvania, had watched the Democratic National Convention (DNC) the week prior and found their virtual show "boring" and a "slow-motion train wreck."
"It was like a post-apocalyptic telethon or something," Parnell, 39, told Fox News. "My only thought was 'I hope that the Republicans learn from this and the production value is better.' And oh my goodness, did they ever."
Parnell shared his behind-the-scenes experience at the RNC with Fox News, including the speech-writing process, measures taken to prevent leaks and how his "rehearsal" ended up being the real deal.
He arrived at the Andrew W. Mellon Auditorium in Washington, D.C., on Monday in awe of the column-lined patriotic setting that was adorned with American flags and projected stars. He was greeted by President Trump's campaign staff, who wore microphones in their ears, suits and masks with presidential seals.
While the auditorium audience was empty aside from campaign staff, it was equipped with high-tech cameras strung across the room and some on hydraulic lifts, similar to what you'd see at an NFL game, Parnell said. Then, an 80-foot huge TV screen was before the podium to serve as the teleprompter for convention speakers.
"I walk into the room with this velvet red carpet and ... it's just overwhelming," Parnell said.
"I've been in more dire situations – more life or death situations in Afghanistan," Parnell, the former Army Ranger and combat infantryman, continued. "I've been under more pressure in my life. But I was really nervous. It was the biggest television audience that I've ever spoken to."
From the start, Parnell had to store his phone in a lockbox, which he compared to the process of heading into a room that's used for top-secret meetings known as a Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility (SCIF). The RNC wanted to ensure pictures and videos of the speakers didn't leak out before the primetime event aired on TV.
"They put phones in these little lockboxes," Parnell said. "... It was like I was walking into a SCIF."
Backstage at the auditorium, there is space for speakers to get their hair and makeup done. Then Parnell walked into the area to consult with the campaign team to go over his speech one last time and make sure it was entered into the teleprompter accurately.
When Parnell got the invite to speak at the convention about two weeks ago, he reached out to his friend John Bruning, co-author of Parnell's book "Outlaw Platoon," and the two got to work immediately on the convention speech that they hoped would weave in Parnell's unique military history in Afghanistan, strike a unifying tone and reach out to independents looking for a reason to vote Republican.
"We knocked out the first draft pretty quickly – in a couple of days ... We did send it to the president's team so they could vet it," Parnell said. "There's a vetting process. They were like, 'This is incredible. We love this. You know here are suggested edits. Feel free to edit further.' And we did."
"It was 100 hundred percent our words," Parnell added. "Nothing in that speech was added from the Trump team. Everything that you heard was from our hearts."
When Parnell arrived in D.C., he made one last-minute change to the speech that ended up being the line that garnered the most positive response – an invitation to "disillusioned" Democrats.
“If you are a traditional Democrat who has become disillusioned with how radical your party has become, then stand with us," Parnell added. "You are most welcome.”
Once his speech was updated in the teleprompter, staff escorted him on stage and told him to walk over to the podium, smile and give it a try. Parnell said thought this was just his "rehearsal."
"And I just walked up there. I thought I was practicing. I didn't even know it was going to be the real thing," Parnell said.
Parnell made it through his nearly five-minute speech and the RNC producer marveled that he was the only speaker who didn't flub his words on the first try.
"I was the only one to knock it out in one hit – the only one to knock out the speech in one take," Parnell said.
"I was so nervous I don't even remember saying anything. ... I still don't remember it myself. It was so surreal to me."
The whole process took less than an hour and he was back at his D.C. hotel to watch himself on TV that night. While Parnell and others were pre-recorded, GOP officials said some other speakers spoke live from the Mellon Auditorium. A Republican involved in the planning said Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley and RNC chairwoman Ronna McDaniel were live Monday night.
As soon as the speech aired, Parnell said he was inundated with positive responses over text and social media and stayed up until 3 a.m. personally thanking each person.
"I just tried to speak from the heart as best I could, and try to do everything I could to bring this country together," Parnell said.
His one regret was his choice to wear a grey suit. "I should have worn black," Parnell quipped. "Black is much more slimming."
Parnell is trying to unseat Democratic Rep. Conor Lamb in November in Pennsylvania's 17th Congressional District. Lamb was also featured at the DNC, but not as a solo primetime speaker. Parnell said he surely had a better convention spotlight than his competitor.
"There's no comparison. He filmed a selfie video like in his backyard or something," Parnell said. "They had him lumped in with 16 or 17 other rising stars – county commissioners, state representatives, an ag commissioner. He had a couple of lines. He had like seven seconds or something... I had four minutes and 45 seconds in prime [time]."
Parnell said he was "blown away" by the quality of the RNC videos, imagery and production in comparison to the Democrats.
"It's President Trump," Parnell said of the former businessman and reality TV star. "If he knows one thing, it's how you do TV. He really had everything thought out."