Former President Donald Trump will reassert himself as the Republican Party’s undisputed leader with a weekend speech to conservatives that highlights the disconnect between his most loyal supporters and those who want to find a new standard-bearer after the attack on the US Capitol.
Trump, who has teased the possibility of a White House run in 2024, isn’t likely to announce any concrete plans in the speech, senior adviser Jason Miller said. But in front of a half-dozen potential 2024 rivals, he will call out President Joe Biden’s agenda, rally loyalists and boast of “crushing" opposition within the party, according to a person familiar with his plans.
The former president speaks Sunday, capping off the annual Conservative Political Action Conference organized by the American Conservative Union -- an event that Trump pulled out of in 2016 rather than face rumblings of criticism about his party credentials.
Now, many Republicans who still find his political style distasteful and hold him responsible for the Jan. 6 Capitol assault were either not invited or declined to attend, and the conference, in Orlando, Florida, will be a celebration of all things Trump -- including his voter fraud allegations that helped spawn the riot.
Earlier this month, Trump was tried and acquitted in the Senate on a charge of incitement of insurrection after he encouraged supporters to march on the Capitol on Jan. 6 while Congress was ratifying Biden’s Electoral College victory. Ten House Republicans and seven GOP senators voted to hold him accountable, even as polls show nearly 90% of Republican voters believe he bears no responsibility for the riot that killed five people.
The CPAC attendees are among those steadfast loyalists. There are no fewer than seven sessions on “protecting elections" with panelists who have amplified the false claim that the November election was stolen, five on China’s growing influence around the globe and a grab bag of conservative discussions about cancel culture and deplatforming by social media companies.
The title of the event is “America Uncanceled."
Beyond presidential candidates and conservative media figures, some speakers are from the fringe edges of the GOP. One scheduled speaker, the musician Young Pharaoh, was removed from the lineup after his past comments about “thieving fake Jews" were publicized.
Other speakers include Maj Toure, the founder of Black Guns Matter, and Cleta Mitchell, the attorney who was with Trump when he called Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger and told him to “find" 11,000 votes that would put him over the top in that state’s election. Mitchell resigned from her law firm after her attendance became known. Another speaker is author and journalist Alex Berenson, who has downplayed the coronavirus pandemic and cast doubt on the efficacy of masks and vaccines.
“They want the Republican Party to boldly fight for the things that they care about," said ACU Chairman Matt Schlapp of the pro-Trump Republicans. “They are not going to be behind any candidate who’s going to go back to the old ways of just being careful and picking a fight here or there."
Trump will make it clear that he wants to be the leader of the GOP heading into the 2022 midterm elections and beyond, Miller said.
“He is the current leader of the party, and he’s also the future of the Republican Party," he added.
Trump is getting help with his speech from former White House speech writer Vince Haley, who recently went to the former president’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, according to a person familiar with his plans. Rather than spend the weekend hobnobbing with supporters, Trump will fly from Palm Beach to Orlando on Sunday, deliver the address and return home.
The event, normally held in the Washington area, moved to Florida because of the capital region’s coronavirus restrictions for mass indoor gatherings.
The former president will talk about how he’s looking to strengthen his political action committee and getting like-minded Republicans elected, and how he’s pushed out all those who have sought to stop him, said a person familiar with the plans.
While the conference will feature many of his potential primary rivals, anyone who wants to be president needs to follow the Trump model -- and this year’s CPAC signals the 2024 race has already begun, Schlapp said.
“I don’t know whether that means he’s a candidate or not a candidate, but there’s no question that the gun goes off on the Republican side – and maybe the Democratic side, too – for 2024," Schlapp said.
The potential Republican presidential candidates speaking include Trump’s former Secretary of State Michael Pompeo, South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem, Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri, Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas and Senator Ted Cruz of Texas.
Another possible contender, former United Nations Ambassador and South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, was invited but cited a scheduling conflict. She has criticized Trump over the insurrection while praising his record.
The conservative conference comes as the Republican Party faces a rift between a populist wing fervently loyal to Trump and establishment leaders such as Senator Mitt Romney of Utah and Wyoming Representative Liz Cheney, who say the GOP should move on after losing control of the House, Senate and White House. The Trump dissidents cite the Capitol attack and point out that some of the rioters threatened to hang Vice President Mike Pence for his role in certifying the election.
The tension was on display Wednesday after House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy answered “yes, he should" when asked whether Trump should speak at CPAC. Cheney, who faced censure in her state for voting to impeach Trump was asked the same question and said, “I don’t believe that he should be playing a role in the future of the party or the country."
Pence was invited but informed CPAC weeks ago that he and his family had decided to keep a low profile in the first half of the year. Cheney and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell are also skipping the event or weren’t invited.
Schlapp said CPAC didn’t specifically exclude Trump critics and invited those who have a high rating from the American Conservative Union or have shown leadership on conservative issues during the past year. But he tweeted last year that Romney “is formally NOT invited" to the 2020 CPAC after the Utah senator voted to allow witnesses in Trump’s first impeachment trial. Romney, who voted to convict Trump in both impeachment trials, wasn’t invited this year either, a CPAC spokesman said.
Romney, the 2012 GOP presidential nominee, won the CPAC presidential straw poll in 2007, 2008, 2009 and 2012 -- when he secured the GOP nomination -- before Trump ascended to prominence in the party. Romney said at a virtual event on Tuesday that Trump would likely win the Republican presidential nomination if he ran again in 2024 and that “he has by far the largest voice and a big impact in my party."
Schlapp dismissed Trump’s critics as a small sliver of the current conservative movement and GOP.
“If we’re preaching to the choir, the choir is 95% of the church," Schlapp said. “What you’re talking about is a few heretics that couldn’t even fill a pew."
Polls bear him out, showing that three-quarters of Republican voters want Trump to lead the party.
Trump had stayed out of the limelight since leaving office last month, briefly re-emerging with statements and interviews on conservative media.
Days after McConnell gave a blistering post-acquittal speech, blaming the former president for the insurrection, Trump issued a caustic statement, mocking McConnell as “a dour, sullen and unsmiling political hack" and warned that senators who remained loyal to their leader “will not win again."
But prominent Republicans, including McConnell, are keen to brush aside the perception that their party is engaged in some sort of civil war. So when McConnell, in a Fox News interview on Thursday, was asked if he would support a re-nominated Trump in 2024, he said, “absolutely.
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