OXON HILL, Md. — The plan went off without any real hitch: No Republican departed CPAC with more glory than former President Donald Trump. In fact, no one bothered to try.
As Trump walked onto the main stage Saturday night to give the keynote address, he was introduced as “the next president of the United States.”
At the four-day conference of conservative activists, Trump’s loyal fan base heckled his Republican opponents, overwhelmingly backed him in a straw poll and quickly booed what appeared to be a rogue audience member who started to play music over his speech. As they did throughout his presidency and the two years since, the MAGA movement showed up sporting buttons with Trump’s face, red hats and an eagerness to see the man the conference now orbits around completely.
Even Fox News, a network that has kept Trump at arm’s length in recent months, ended up airing some of his speech live on television following complaints from the CPAC mainstage a day earlier about a lack of Trump coverage.
In his one-hour, 45-minute CPAC finale speech, Trump boasted that the crowd here was firmly with him while bashing Republicans who were once stars of the annual confab.
“We had a Republican Party that was ruled by freaks, neocons, globalists, open border zealots, and fools, but we are never going back to the party of Paul Ryan, Karl Rove, and Jeb Bush,” Trump said to the crowd. “People are tired of RINOs and globalists. They want to see America First.”
Speaking to a not-quite-full convention hall, Trump painted a bleak picture of the current state of the world, complained about the numerous investigations he faces and described his run for president as the “final battle” for his supporters.
“Either they win or we win. And if they win, we no longer have a country,” Trump said.
Earlier, during a gaggle with reporters, Trump said he would “absolutely” stay in the 2024 race even if indicted in any of the investigations he faces over handling of classified documents and the aftermath of the 2020 election.
Trump received some of the loudest applause from the audience when taking on culture war battles over parental rights and women’s sports. And while he railed about election laws, he drastically changed his tune on mail-in ballots and early voting. “We have to change our thinking because some bad things happened,” Trump said. “You have to do it.”
The annual conference once welcomed Republicans of all stripes, but this year it was clearly steeped in MAGA. Beyond Trump, headliners included some of the former president’s most loyal allies in Congress. And while there were other 2024 contenders like former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley and “anti-woke” entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, the biggest threat to Trump’s presidential run, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, and other prominent Republicans were hundreds of miles away.
That didn’t seem to matter to the crowd here.
During one of the most rousing speeches of the multi-day conference, former Trump adviser and conservative talk show host Steve Bannon on Friday suggested that the Republican primary starting to play out was a futile exercise.
“Don’t fall for the primary stuff,” Bannon said from the CPAC stage. “You have good and decent people. Gov. DeSantis, Mike Pompeo, Tim Scott, you have Nikki Haley — that’s all fine. It’s not relevant.”
Bannon continued by telling the crowd they “don’t have time for on-the-job training” for a new leader, when Republicans have “a man that gave us four years — four years — of peace and prosperity.”
“Buckle up,” Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.), the No. 3 House Republican, told POLITICO in an interview at the conclusion of the conference. “Trump is going to win the primary and defeat Joe Biden.”
It was a sentiment shared by most CPAC attendees — who literally wore their Trump support on their sleeve, like one attendee with a tattoo of Trump’s face. People wore Trump T-shirts and bedazzled Trump clutches. They posed for photos in a mock Trump Oval Office set up by a pro-Trump super PAC, complete with a faux Resolute Desk that was sourced from a souvenir shop near the White House. Overall, they seemed uninterested in any other 2024 candidate. And many weren’t exactly polite about their unwavering support for Trump.
Despite garnering applause throughout parts of her speech, Haley stepped out of the main hall Friday to a crowd of MAGA hat-wearing hecklers. Part of the mob surrounding her broke out in chants of “Trump.”
And during a speech by Ramaswamy, another declared presidential candidate, a voice in the crowd shouted out “Trump 2024!” Ramaswamy sought to defuse the brief moment of tension, saying he “love(s) the man” and would discuss the former president later in his speech.
But when Ramaswamy got to that point, he didn’t take even a minor swipe at Trump, as he had initially planned. Excerpts from his prepared speech, obtained by POLITICO beforehand, showed that Ramaswamy was going to say that he respects Trump and believes he cares about national unity, but Trump would have already delivered on unifying the country if he had truly intended to do so.
“That’s what I can deliver that he can’t,” Ramaswamy had planned to say, according to the prepared remarks.
Instead, Ramaswamy skipped over that line, only saying that both he and Trump care about national unity.
Save for a couple of vague comments that could be construed as digs at Trump — Pompeo cautioning against following “celebrity leaders” with “fragile egos who refuse to acknowledge reality,” and Haley again calling for competency tests for politicians over 75 — no one dared to criticize the former president.
Trump’s rivals, however, were by no means rewarded by him for holding their fire. A few hours before he took the stage on Saturday, Trump posted a meme on his social media app of rows of empty chairs while Haley was on stage Friday. “Nikki Haley speaking at CPAC,” was emblazoned across the bottom of the image.
But Trump mostly held off when he was asked by reporters ahead of his speech about a potential DeSantis challenge and what it says about his own leadership if former Trump administration officials, like Haley, are getting in the race. Many Trump allies see an advantage with a large primary field, with the non-Trump candidates potentially splintering the vote — a scenario similar to the one that played out in the 2016 primary.
“I really say the more the merrier. I mean, they think they did a good job,” Trump said. “They’re very ambitious people, but they think they did a good job.”
Despite holding off on the broadsides, Trump did not commit to signing any kind of loyalty pledge in order to participate in RNC debates.
“There are people I probably wouldn’t be very happy about endorsing … I won’t use names, I don’t want to insult anyone, but I wouldn’t be happy about it,” Trump said.
Trump overwhelmingly won CPAC’s conference straw poll, garnering 62 percent support from attendees compared to 20 percent for DeSantis. Trump’s 40-point margin was similar to straw polls conducted at prior years’ CPAC events, illustrating the former president’s enduring grip on the party’s activist class.
But the poll did feature one twist: Perry Johnson, a little-known Michigan millionaire and failed gubernatorial candidate who announced his presidential run last week, earned 5 percent support. That put Johnson in third place, ahead of Haley and Ramaswamy.
Johnson, whose bus was prominently parked outside the Gaylord National, had the only campaign booth in the CPAC exhibit hall on Thursday. His staffers passed out branded items and invited guests to attend a VIP reception while also encouraging attendees to cast a vote for him in the straw poll.
The conference once attracted a broad spectrum of conservative voices from Paul Ryan to Rick Santorum. But now, it has become almost entirely focused on Trump and the America First movement he inspired. On Friday night at the annual Ronald Reagan Dinner, attendees paid $375 for a steak and fish dinner and to hear from Kari Lake, the failed gubernatorial candidate who is considering a run for Senate in Arizona and is a popular Trump surrogate.
“We took the whole thing over,” said conservative radio host John Fredericks, calling this year’s event the “disruptor CPAC of all time.”
Some of the GOP’s top leaders didn’t show at the large gathering this year, while a past major sponsor, Fox News, also steered clear. Matt Schlapp, who heads CPAC, has not appeared on the network since allegations surfaced in January that he sexually assaulted a GOP campaign staffer in October — a claim Schlapp denies.
“CPAC was a sanitized, corporatized, Wall Street-backed organization with big donors. They’re all eradicated,” Fredericks said. “The populist movement has taken it over.”
Trump’s son, Donald Trump Jr., his daughter in law, Lara Trump, and future daughter in law, Kimberly Guilfoyle, were main-stage speakers. Other headliners included some of Trump’s biggest allies in Congress, like Sen. J.D. Vance from Ohio and Rep. Matt Gaetz from Florida. But notably, the only member of Republican congressional leadership to attend was Stefanik, the New York congresswoman who was one of the first to endorse Trump for president. She said the support for Trump at CPAC was a reflection of the “grassroots,” adding, “Trump is in the strongest position by a longshot.”
“I don’t know about you guys, but this feels like MAGA Country,” Trump Jr. said as he took the stage on Friday, instructing attendees to check under their seats for a gold chocolate bar — “a golden ticket,” he said, for entry to an exclusive reception Saturday held by a super PAC supporting his father.
Trump Jr. then quickly pivoted to attacking other Republicans mulling a primary run against Trump, most of whom skipped CPAC to attend a Club for Growth donor retreat in Palm Beach this weekend. Among those appearing at the anti-tax group’s cattle call were DeSantis, Haley, Ramaswamy, former Vice President Mike Pence, South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, and New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu. Trump was not invited to attend the dueling event.
“They’re raising money from the people who don’t necessarily believe in America First,” Trump Jr. continued. “But they need their money.”
At the Club for Growth event, DeSantis touted his record as Florida governor and criticized Republicans who have sat like “potted plants” during “woke ideology” debates, according to Fox News. Haley sought to make her case for being the GOP alternative to Trump, calling herself “decisive” for officially getting in the primary while other candidates at the retreat were “hemming and hawing on the sidelines.”
“All the major conferences that cater to the grassroots are with MAGA and the people are with Trump,” said Alex Bruesewitz, a Republican strategist and influencer. “The donors are with the Washington establishment Republicans — and there is a major disconnect.”
This year’s CPAC had the usual trappings of the annual grassroots confab, like an exhibition hall filled with an assortment of pro-Trump paraphernalia and information booths for businesses run by or catering to Republicans,such as a booth for the Right Stuff, a dating app for right wing singles run by a former top Trump White House aide, Johnny McEntee.
Inside a private reception ahead of Trump’s speech, an event sponsored by a super PAC supporting him, Make America Great Again Inc., showed off right-wing luminaries who have remained loyal endorsers of Trump.
Gaetz and Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) were whisked through the crowd as attendees chowed down on Rice Krispy Treats, brownies and miniature cupcakes. The pair walked on stage to entertain the audience while Trump took questions from reporters in another room prior to making his appearance before the VIP crowd. Lake and Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.) trickled in separately, stopping to take photos with members of the invite-only audience.
And throughout his public speech Saturday, Trump at times paused to acknowledge some of his high-profile supporters in the audience who have continued to stick with him as a primary field has emerged. Trump praised people like Greene, Gaetz, right-wing talk show host Mark Levin and others — flaunting the conservative influencers who have tied themselves to him despite others in the party quietly pushing for his replacement.
“I didn’t know this was a rally, Matt,” Trump said to Schlapp as he stepped up the lectern to a chorus of “USA” chants in the audience. “It really is a rally.”
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