ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — Taking the stage for the first time since leaving office, former President Donald Trump on Sunday called for Republican Party unity, even as he exacerbated intraparty divisions and trumpeted lies about the election in a speech that made clear he intends to remain a dominant political force.
Speaking at the Conservative Political Action Conference, where he has been hailed as a returning hero, Trump blasted his successor, President Joe Biden, and tried to cement his status as the party’s undisputed leader despite his loss in November.
“Do you miss me yet?” Trump said after taking the stage, where his old rally soundtrack had been playing. “I stand before you today to declare that the incredible journey we begun together ... is far from being over."
Though Trump has flirted with the the idea of creating a third party, he pledged Sunday to remain part of what he called “our beloved party."
“I'm going to continue to fight right by your side. We're not starting new parties,” he said. “We have the Republican Party. It's going to be strong and united like never before.”
The conference, held this year in Orlando instead of the Washington suburbs because of COVID-19 restrictions, has served as a tribute to Trump and Trumpism, complete with a golden statue in his likeness on display. Speakers, including many potential 2024 hopefuls, have argued the party must embrace the former president and his followers, even after the deadly insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.
And they have repeated his unfounded claim that he lost the November election only because of mass voter fraud — an assertion that has been repeatedly rejected by judges, Republican state officials and Trump’s own administration.
Still, Trump continued to repeat what Democrats have dubbed the “big lie," calling the election “rigged” and insisting that he won in November, even though he lost by more than 7 million votes.
“As you know, they just lost the White House,” he said of Biden, rewriting history as he teased the prospect that he will run again in 2024. “I may even decide to beat them for a third time," he said.
And he mocked those who have warned that such talk will damage the party.
“If Republicans don’t get this and the other things I’m going to say, then you should, like the Supreme Court, be ashamed of yourselves," he said.
The conference's annual unscientific straw poll of just over 1,000 attendees found that 97% approve of the job Trump did as president. But they were much more ambiguous about whether he should run again, with 68% saying he should.
If the 2024 primary were held today and Trump were in the race, just 55% said they would vote for him, followed by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis at 21%. Without Trump in the field, 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 Sen. Ted Cruz.
It is highly unusual for past American presidents to publicly criticize their successors so soon after leaving office. Ex-presidents typically step out of the spotlight for at least a while; Barack Obama was famously seen kitesurfing on vacation after he departed, while George W. Bush said he believed Obama “deserves my silence” and took up painting.
He delivered a sharp rebuke of what he framed as the new administration's first month of failures, including Biden's approach to 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 brushed off the expected criticism. “We’ll see what he says, but our focus is certainly not on what President Trump is saying at CPAC," she told reporters.
Aside from criticizing Biden, Trump used the speech to crown himself the future of the Republican Party, even as many leaders argue they must move in a new, less divisive direction after Republicans lost not only the White House but both chambers of Congress in the last elections.
And he insisted the party was united, even as he called out by name Republicans who voted to impeach him for inciting the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol, including the No. 3 House Republican, Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, and lashed those he labels RINOs, “Republican in name only.”
“We cannot have leaders who show more passion for condemning their fellow Americans than they have ever shown for standing up to Democrats, the media and the radicals who want to turn America into a socialist country," Trump said.
On Friday, Trump began his vengeance campaign, endorsing Max Miller, a former aide who is seeking to oust Ohio Rep. Anthony Gonzalez, who voted in favor of Trump’s impeachment.
Still, in his speech Sunday he insisted the only gulf in the party was “between a handful of Washington, D.C., establishment political hacks and everybody else, all over the country.”
While he no longer has his social media megaphone after being barred from Twitter and Facebook, Trump has already been inching back into public life. He called into conservative news outlets after Rush Limbaugh's death and to wish Tiger Woods well after the pro golfer was injured in a car crash. He has also issued statements, including one blasting Mitch McConnell after the Senate Republican leader excoriated Trump for inciting the Capitol riot. McConnell has since said he would “absolutely” support Trump if he were the GOP nominee in 2024.
At his Mar-a-Lago club in Palm Beach, Florida, Trump has 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, aides have been working this past week to develop benchmarks for those seeking his endorsement to make sure the candidates are serious and have set up full-fledged political and fundraising organizations before he gets involved.
They are also planning a new super PAC that could raise unlimited amounts of money, though one aide cautioned they were still deciding whether to create a new entity or repurpose an existing America First super PAC.