WASHINGTON — In March 2016, Donald Trump snubbed the major conservative gathering known as CPAC amid fears that activists would boo him.
By then he was the front-runner to face Hillary Clinton. Speaker after speaker skewered him in absentia, warning that time was running short to protect the GOP nomination for a more reliable conservative.
“His choice sends a clear message to conservatives,” chided the American Conservative Union, which hosts the Conservative Political Action Conference.
When the 45th president arrives Sunday afternoon to speak at the conference in Dallas, he’ll be welcomed as leader of the movement and party — and the rightful occupant of the White House.
“I’ll just say it. The election was stolen. I’m convinced of it,” said Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller, who is also a Trump adviser. As for the evolution in the Trump-CPAC relationship, he said: “Neither one has changed. Trump has proven himself. That’s what’s changed.”
Trump in four years slammed the brakes on immigration, built hundreds of miles of border wall, cut taxes and regulation, reshaped the federal judiciary and named fully one-third of the U.S. Supreme Court, putting a conservative stamp on the high court that will last a generation.
“Everyone was skeptical when he first ran,” Miller said. “Now that he’s proven himself and been one of the most conservative, most successful presidents in our lifetime, people have learned to overlook the mean tweets, and the other character flaws most people would agree he might have. They certainly love his policies. They were fantastic.”
Conservatives spent eight years out of power during the Obama era. At CPAC 2017, at a sprawling Gaylord resort in National Harbor, Maryland, outside Washington, a newly inaugurated Trump presented himself as their savior.
“Now you finally have a president, finally,” Trump declared to a raucous crowd that chanted, “Build the wall!” and, at the mention of Clinton, “Lock her up!”
Trump has been idolized at CPAC ever since. The base loves Trump, and CPAC is the distillation of the base.
“I tell you what, I miss President Donald Trump,” Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., declared at the Hilton Anatole in Dallas, eliciting a roar of approval. “We have to restore President Trump’s America First agenda. … He was holding the Chinese communists responsible for the Wuhan coronavirus.”
“I can’t tell you what Donald Trump is going to do in 2024,” said his state campaign co-chair, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick. “In Texas we stand with President Trump. … In 2024, Trumpism will rise again!”
That also drew cheers.
Teasing a 2024 run
The Dallas CPAC appearance is part of a striptease that started at CPAC in Orlando in late February and now also includes campaign-style rallies.
The only obvious agenda is to keep supporters riled and loyal, so Trump can punish Republicans who voted to impeach him, maintain his control of the party and help retake the House and Senate in the 2022 midterm elections.
By design or not, these appearances also freeze the 2024 field, forcing potential rivals such as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis — who sailed past Trump in a CPAC straw poll in Orlando — to tread carefully, lest they incur his wrath before they’ve gathered enough money and allies to survive an onslaught.
Only one such hopeful, South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, signed up to speak at CPAC Dallas, leaving an unusual vacuum at a gathering that Republican wannabes have flocked to for years.
“I’d say better than 50% chance that he runs,” said the American Conservative Union’s chairman, Matt Schlapp. “But I think he has suspended that and is focusing on these congressional majorities. And I think that’s the right thing to do.”
If all goes as hoped, Schlapp said, “He’ll get a lot of credit, and probably the most credit, for getting those majorities back.”
Trump has poured himself into that effort, raising money, endorsing candidates and holding rallies that do double duty — spotlighting select races while boxing out potential rivals.
At both rallies he’s held since he left office and retreated to his Mar-a-Lago resort, last weekend in Sarasota, Florida, and June 26 in Ohio, Trump downplayed the violence of Jan. 6, when thousands of frenzied supporters — fired up by him — stormed the U.S. Capitol in hopes of stopping Congress from certifying the election of Joe Biden as president.
Trump also reiterated debunked claims about his defeat.
“We won the election twice,” he told a large crowd June 26 at a fairgrounds near Cleveland. “We may have to win it a third time.”
In the vast Anatole lobby, not far from the iconic elephant statues, Debbie Billingsly snagged a photo with Rep. Madison Cawthorn, R-N.C.
She wore a “Trump 2024” button and put it at “1000%” that he’s the undisputed leader of the party. She’s just as certain he’ll run again.
“Absolutely. Of course he’s not going to say so yet,” said Billingsly, 67, an interior designer from Van Alstyne, north of McKinney, after her husband, Paul, had snapped the photo. But “he’s having the rallies, and he’s working real hard to get the House back.”
(Moments later, Cawthorn raised eyebrows by claiming a new Biden administration door-to-door campaign to expand COVID-19 vaccination was actually a Trojan horse — a dry run for a government scheme to confiscate Bibles and guns.)
As for whether Trump won, Billingsly said: “He did. He absolutely did, and the people that don’t believe that just aren’t engaged, and they didn’t pay attention to what happened. It’s all going to come out, one state at a time. But listen, they know it. We know it. Democrats know what they did. This was planned with these machines a long time ago.”
A recurring topic of conversation at CPAC is whether Trump could somehow be reinstated as president, perhaps even next month.
“He should be,” said Billingsly, adding that maybe if Republicans win back Congress in the midterms it could happen. “It’s never happened before, but hey, it was never stolen before.”
Miller, the state ag commissioner, said Trump himself raised the possibility over dinner in April.
“He kind of indicated that, you know, this Arizona deal might be the break we need to bring the house of cards down,” Miller said, referring to a privately funded recount in Phoenix, where election officials reject fraud claims. “So I said, ‘Mr. President, if that happens, who’s going to take Biden out of office? You can’t. You’re not the president. You have to have somebody who can remove him, so who is that?’ He didn’t answer me.
“We’ll see. We’ll see. We’re a long way from that,” Miller said.
“President Trump is the standard-bearer of the Republican Party,” said Phil Rizzo, a pastor from Hoboken who was runner-up in New Jersey’s GOP primary for governor a month ago.
The winner, a moderate who’d called Trump a “charlatan” in 2015, might have lost if several pro-Trump candidates hadn’t split the vote.
“People are dead serious about President Trump in New Jersey,” said Rizzo, who also contends Trump was cheated in the election. “I don’t live in a culture where I’m not allowed to believe what my eyeballs see. … The truth will come out, but there were so many irregularities.”