ORLANDO, Florida — Donald Trump returned to the spotlight Sunday telling enthusiastic conservatives that he may run for president again in 2024, as he sought to reassert his dominance over a Republican Party that is out of power
The 74-year-old addressed the Conservative Political Action Conference in Orlando in a highly-anticipated keynote speech.
“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.”
But while he teased his future plans, he left the crowd guessing about whether he will challenge President Joe Biden in a rematch.
“Actually you know they just lost the White House,” Trump said of Democrats, again promoting the falsehood that Trump was denied a second term because of election fraud.
“But who knows — who knows?” he boomed. “I may even decide to beat them for a third time, OK?”
President Trump says that the election was "rigged."
— Daily Caller (@DailyCaller) February 28, 2021
Banned from Twitter and other social media, Trump has maintained a low profile at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida since he left the White House on January 20.
At the CPAC event, he walked out on stage to revel in a lengthy standing ovation by cheering loyalists, the vast majority maskless despite the coronavirus pandemic.
Though Trump has flirted with the idea of creating a third party, he pledged 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.”
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.
But he also painted America as a land divided.
“Our security, our prosperity and our very identity as Americans is at stake,” he said, in a rambling speech that attacked immigrants, slammed “cancel culture,” and criticized Biden policies on climate change, energy, and election integrity.
US political parties usually face a reckoning after a string of setbacks such as those the Republicans saw under four years of Trump: losing the White House, the Senate and the House of Representatives.
The party is also marked with Trump’s repeated lies about his election loss, his impeachment over inciting the US Capitol riot on January 6, and the faultline his actions have caused between establishment Republicans and pro-Trump populists.
But, instead of jettisoning its troubled leader and charting a new path to claw back relevance, much of the party still sees Trump as retaining a vice-like grip on its future.
It is a perception he has encouraged, setting himself up as a vindictive Republican kingmaker. On Friday he endorsed an ex-aide against an Ohio congressman who voted to impeach him.
At least at CPAC, enthusiasm for Trump remained sky high. Attendees posed next to a shiny gold-colored statue of the former president, and cheers rose up whenever panelists praised him.
In a straw poll conducted at the conference and released just before Trump’s speech, nearly seven in 10 respondents said they want him to run again.
On future direction for the party, support for Trumpism was rock solid, with 95 percent of respondents wanting to continue Trump’s policies and agenda.
But when asked who they prefer as the party’s nominee in 2024, a moderate 55 percent chose Trump, with Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, the de facto CPAC host, was a distant second with 21 percent.
Respected Republican strategist Karl Rove said he would have expected a stronger result for Trump, especially at a confab that appears so supportive of the ex-president.
“I’d take that as a cautionary note,” Rove said on Fox News.
“He needs to refresh his act.”
For some Republicans like Senator Bill Cassidy, who voted to convict Trump in the impeachment trial, moving on from the brash billionaire is critical.
“We’ve got to win in two years, we’ve got to win in four years,” Cassidy told CNN’s State of the Union.
“We’ll do that by speaking to those issues important to the American people — and there’s a lot of issues important to them right now — not by putting one person on a pedestal.”