ORLANDO, Florida (AP) – Taking the stage for the first time since leaving office, former President Donald Trump called for Republican unity, even as he exacerbated divisions within the party by attacking fellow Republicans and promoting lies about the election in a speech that he made clear intends to remain a dominant political force.
Speaking Sunday at the Conservative Political Action Conference, where he has been hailed as a returning hero, Trump slammed his successor, President Joe Biden, and sought to map out a vision for the future of the Republican Party that firmly revolves around him, despite his loss. in November.
“Do you miss me already?” Trump said after taking the stage to his old rally soundtrack and cheers from the supporting crowd.
Trump, in his speech, tried to downplay the civil war that gripped the party over the extent to which Republicans should embrace him, even while rolling out a list of enemies, calling out the 10 House Republicans and the Republicans by name. seven Republican senators who voted to impeach or convict him for inciting riots in the United States Capitol. She ended by pointing to Representative Liz Cheney, the No. 3 Republican in the House of Representatives, who has faced a tremendous backlash in Wyoming for saying that Trump should no longer play a role in the party or headline the event.
While he insisted that the divide was simply a dispute “between a handful from Washington, DC, establishment political pirates, and everyone else, across the country,” Trump had a message for the rulers who had dared to cross it: ” Get rid of “. everybody “.
The conference, held this year in Orlando rather than in suburban Washington to evade COVID-19 restrictions, served as a tribute to Trump and Trumpism, with a gilded statue in his likeness. on display. Speakers, including many potential 2024 hopefuls, argued that the party must embrace the former president and his supporters, even after the deadly insurrection on Capitol Hill on January 6.
They also repeated in panel after panel his unsubstantiated claims that he lost reelection solely because of massive electoral fraud, even though such claims have been rejected by judges, Republican state officials and the Trump administration itself.
Trump also went on to repeat what Democrats have called the “big lie,” calling the election “rigged” and insisting that he won in November, despite losing by more than 7 million votes.
“As you know, they just lost the White House,” he said of Biden, rewriting history.
It is highly unusual for former US presidents to publicly criticize their successors in the months after leaving office. Former presidents typically leave the limelight for at least a time; Barack Obama was seen kitesurfing on vacation after his departure, while George W. Bush said he believed Obama “deserves my silence” and took up painting.
He launched a loud rebuke of what he framed as the new administration’s first month of failures, especially Biden’s focus on immigration and the border.
“Joe Biden has had the most disastrous first month of any president in modern history,” Trump said.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki ignored the criticism expected last week. “We’ll see what it says, but our focus is certainly not on what President Trump is saying at CPAC,” he told reporters.
In addition to criticizing Biden, Trump used the speech to crown himself the future of the Republican Party, even as many leaders argue that they must move in a new and less divisive direction after Republicans lost not just the White House, but both houses of the Republican Party. Congress.
Although Trump has flirted with the idea of creating a third party, he vowed Sunday to remain part of “our beloved” Republican Party.
“I will continue fighting by your side. We are not starting new parties, ”he said. “We have the Republican Party. It’s going to be strong and united like never before. ”However, Trump spent much of the speech criticizing those he deemed insufficiently loyal and dubbed“ RINOs, ”Republicans in name only, for not supporting him.
“We cannot have leaders who show more passion for condemning their fellow citizens than they have shown for standing up to the Democrats, the media and the radicals who want to turn America into a socialist country,” Trump said.
Trump did not use his speech to announce plans to run again, but he repeatedly scoffed at the prospect as he predicted that a Republican would win back the White House in 2024.
“And I wonder who it is,” he offered. Who, who, who will that be? I wonder.”
However, it is unclear how much appetite there would be for another Trump term, even in the hall of staunch supporters.
The conference’s annual unscientific poll of just over 1,000 attendees found that 97% approved of Trump’s job as president. But they were much more ambiguous when asked if they should run again, with only 68% saying they should.
If the 2024 primaries were held today and Trump was in the race, only 55% said they would vote for him, followed by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis with 21%. Without Trump on the ground, DeSantis garnered 43% support, followed by 8% for South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, and 7% each for former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Texas Senator Ted Cruz.
While he no longer has his social media megaphone after being banned from Twitter and Facebook, Trump had been returning to public life even before the speech. He called on the conservative media after the death of radio star Rush Limbaugh and issued statements, including one in which he criticized Mitch McConnell after the Senate Republican leader criticized Trump for inciting unrest in the Capitol. McConnell has since said that he would “absolutely” support Trump if he were the Republican nominee in 2024.
At his Mar-a-Lago club in Palm Beach, Florida, Trump has also been quietly meeting with aides and senior party leaders as he builds his post-presidential political operation. While he has already endorsed several pro-Trump candidates, including one who challenged a supporter of the impeachment, attendees have been working this past week to develop benchmarks for those seeking his endorsement to ensure the candidates are serious and have established a fundraising and policy in its own right. organizations before getting involved.
They are also planning a new super PAC that could raise unlimited amounts of money, although one attendee cautioned that they were still deciding whether to create a new entity or repurpose an existing America First super PAC.
Trump hinted at the effort Sunday, expressing his commitment to helping elect Republicans and asking attendees to join him.
“I stand before you today to declare that the incredible journey we began together … is far from over,” he said.