ORLANDO, FLORIDA (AP) – Leading Republicans spent much of three days avoiding Donald Trump’s chief grievances or ignoring him altogether as they unified behind a midterm message designed to win back the voters the polarising former president alienated while in office.
That changed on Saturday night.
Facing thousands of cheering activists at the Conservative Political Action Conference’s (CPAC) annual meeting, former United States (US) president Trump falsely blamed his 2020 election loss on widespread voter fraud, for which there is no evidence. As Russian troops advanced on the Ukrainian capital in an invasion widely condemned by Western leaders, Trump described Russian President Vladimir Putin as “smart”.
“Of course he’s smart,” Trump said, doubling down on praise of the Russian leader that many other Republicans have avoided in the wake of the invasion. “But the real problem is our leaders are dumb. Dumb. So dumb.”
While Trump expressed support for the Ukrainian people and called the country’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, a “brave man”, he also noted his ties with other leading autocrats.
He specifically pointed to his friendly relationships with Xi Jinping of China and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.
Trump then left no doubt he is the most powerful voice in Republican politics by indicating he will run for president a third time in 2024. “We did it twice, and we’ll do it again,” Trump said. “We’re going to be doing it again, a third time.”
Up until Trump’s appearance, lies about election fraud, the focus of last year’s conference, had been an afterthought among the top speakers. No one parroted Trump’s approving rhetoric towards Putin. And some leading Republicans didn’t even mention Trump’s name.
Instead, those most likely to seek the GOP’s 2024 presidential nomination not named Trump united behind an agenda that includes more parental control of schools, opposition to pandemic-related mandates and a fierce rejection of “woke” culture. The message from more than a half-dozen elected officials, delivered to thousands of mostly white activists at an event that usually celebrates far-right rhetoric, does not mean the party has turned its back on Trumpism.
Far from it. The former president was a frequent topic among some of the conference’s lower-profile speakers. T-shirts proclaiming “Trump won” were being sold in the hallways.
And Trump is expected to be announced the overwhelming winner of CPAC’s 2024 presidential preference straw poll yesterday.
Still, conference organiser Matt Schlapp, the chair of the American Conservative Union, noted that Trump does not have an absolute lock on his party’s base.