ORLANDO, Fla. – Donald Trump reentered political life Sunday by attacking President Joe Biden, condemning Republican opponents, and proclaiming himself the leader of a GOP riven by election defeats and last month’s pro-Trump insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.
Trump’s attacks on other Republicans – and his support of primary challengers to some GOP lawmakers – threaten to divide the party further as it tries to regain control of Congress in 2022 and the White House in 2024.
Ahead of the speech, other Republicans said the party can only win elections in 2022 and 2024 by asking voters to agree with them on issues, not on Trump. Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., told CNN’s “State of the Union” that the GOP cannot win if they put one man on “a pedestal.”
If “we can speak to those policies, to those families, then we will win,” said Cassidy, one of the seven Republican senators who voted to convict Trump on charges of inciting the Jan. 6 insurrection. “But if we idolize one person, we will lose.”
Trump is not expected to declare a 2024 presidential candidacy in his address to the Conservative Political Action Conference. But he is likely to discuss plans to inject himself into the 2022 congressional elections, backing Republicans who subscribe to his “Make America Great Again” agenda.
“The greater the challenge, and the tougher the task, the more determined we must be to pull through and win,” Trump plans to say, according to excerpts released by his office.
Although he only left office Jan. 20, Trump also plans to bash his still-new successor, Biden, claiming he has had “the most disastrous first month of any president in modern history,” according to the excerpts. Trump plans to call on Biden to support reopening schools, despite the pandemic, and stand up to China and its trade practices.
Democrats and Biden officials said they are cleaning up the mess left behind by Trump, from his COVID-19 response and too-restrictive immigration measures to frayed relations with international allies.
White House officials have said neither they nor Biden plan to comment much on Trump’s speech because they expect to be busy working.
“I wouldn’t say he’s thought a lot about the former president’s visit – I was going to say ‘performance,’ maybe that’s appropriate – at CPAC,” said White House press secretary Jen Psaki.
Democratic strategist Jesse Ferguson said it’s been a year since Trump downplayed the then-imminent threat of COVID-19. “After all the GOP’s failures to combat it, and over 500,000 killed, Trump will demand this crowd – his most loyal subjects – praise him for it,” Ferguson said.
Trump’s maiden speech of his post-presidency could be a long one. Trump, who spoke frequently at CPAC before and after his presidency, talked for two hours during his appearance in 2019.
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The ex-president also plans to attack Republicans who expressed support for his impeachment, or refused to help him with efforts to overturn his election loss to Biden.
Some of those Republicans are urging the party to move past Trump, citing his role in the insurrection and calling him a divisive leader who would drag down the party to more defeats.
“I don’t believe that he should be playing a role in the future of the party, or the country,” said Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., one of ten House Republicans who voted to impeach Trump over the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.
President Donald Trump acknowledges the crowd during the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) at Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center Feb. 29, 2020, in National Harbor, Maryland. (Photo: Tasos Katopodis, Getty Images)
Beyond occasional written statements and brief phone-in interviews on cable television, Trump has laid low since leaving office, especially during this month’s Senate impeachment trial.
The Senate acquitted Trump on charges he incited the riot, but only because prosecutors could not muster the two-thirds vote needed for conviction. As it was, 57 of the 100 senators voted for Trump’s conviction, including seven Republicans – more possible targets of Trump’s CPAC speech.
The ex-president will find a friendly crowd. Speaker after speaker has lauded Trump since CPAC opened on Thursday night. Many delegates have lined up to take pictures beside a golden statue of Trump, which is decked out in coat-and-tie, beach shorts, flip-flops, and carrying a magic wand.
The ex-president’s appearance turned CPAC into something of a Trump political rally.
In a straw poll conducted during the conference, 55% of CPAC delegates said they want Trump to be the Republican nominee in 2024. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who probably had a home state advantage at the conference in Orlando, finished second with 21%, with other possible GOP candidates in single digits.
Several CPAC attendees questioned whether Trump will or should run. A little more than two-thirds of the delegates, 68%, said the ex-president should run again in three years, while 32% said he should not, or had no opinion on the subject.
It’s not known whether Trump will again blame unproven allegations of voter fraud for his loss to Biden, a major topic of conversation at CPAC. Trump does plan to call for changes to the system, according to the excerpts, supporting “steps we must take to have an election system in this country that is honest, fair and accurate.”
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Shortly before Trump’s speech, one CPAC speaker – Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio – told the crowd he was “the leader of the conservative movement” and “the leader of the Republican Party.” Delegates gave those lines a standing ovation,
The expected attacks on Biden are unique in the modern era. Other ex-presidents have criticized their successors, but none have done it as early in the new president’s first term as Trump.
Rather than fade from the political scene, as have many previous ex-presidents, Trump plans to stay in the spotlight, for better or for worse as far as the Republicans are concerned.
Trump and his allies are even planning to get involved in Republican primaries next month. They have vowed to back primary challengers to Republicans he views as disloyal, particularly the ten House Republicans who voted for impeachment.
On Friday, Trump endorsed former White House aide Max Miller in his challenge to Rep. Anthony Gonzalez, R-Ohio, an impeachment supporter.
Denver Riggleman, a former Republican congressman from Virginia who now opposes Trump, said he expects him on Sunday to aggressively attack critics while building a “cult of personality” within a Republican Party on the brink of civil war.
Said Riggleman: “You’ve got people who are loyal to Trump against people who are loyal to the Constitution.”
Some Democrats welcome Trump’s return to politics. Jaime Harrison, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, described Trump’s reemergence as a gift to the Democrats, helping them raise money and defeat GOP election opponents in 2022 and 2024.
“Oh, he’s a hot messy gift,” Harrison told MSNBC.
Others said Trump’s speech will reinforce his continuing domination of the Republican Party. Joe Walsh, a former GOP congressman said now a conservative critic of Trump, said, “it’s his party, and he knows it.”
“We all underestimate his hold on the party,” Walsh said. “The next four years are his, to do whatever he wants.”
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