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Trump rules out third party as he moves to firm up control of GOP

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 2/28/2021 David Weigel, Michael Scherer
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ORLANDO —Former president Donald Trump declared Sunday that he is considering a presidential run in 2024, has ruled out forming a third party and will devote himself to building up Republican efforts to take on Democrats and others he claimed have targeted his movement.

The address before an ebullient crowd at the Conservative Political Action Conference marked Trump’s first political speech since leaving the White House. It was staged as a public declaration of Trump’s intention to play a dominant political role in controlling the GOP through the 2022 election — and to potentially set himself up for a third campaign for the White House.

“We began it together four years ago, and it is far from being over,” Trump said of the political journey launched by his 2016 campaign. “Let there be no doubt we will be victorious, and America will be stronger and greater than ever before.”

Trump’s speech came as he has been putting the finishing touches on a new political structure that he intends to use to cement his dominance over the GOP.

“We are not starting new parties,” he said. “We have the Republican Party. It is going to unite and be stronger than ever before.”

[Trump’s speech to CPAC highlighted an alliance that dates back years]

Trump also launched an expected attack on President Biden, echoing many of the themes of the Republican’s winning 2016 presidential campaign and its losing sequel in 2020. He alleged that Biden had “the most disastrous first month of any president in modern history,” before attacking the president for his position on border security policy, his erasure of Trump executive orders and his energy policies.

He predicted withering Democratic losses in the 2022 midterms and a Democratic loss of the White House four years from now, prompting a standing ovation and chants of “USA!” and “Four more years!”

He repeated his false claims about the outcome of the 2020 presidential election, which Biden won.

“Actually, as you know, they just lost the White House,” he said falsely of the Democratic Party. “But who knows, I might even decide to beat them for a third time.” Later, after predicting a “triumphant” return of a Republican president in four years, he added, “I wonder who that will be. Who, who, who will that be, I wonder.”

Trump took the stage immediately after the release of a 2024 presidential straw poll of conference attendees, conducted by Trump campaign pollster Jim McLaughlin.

It found that 68 percent of attendees wanted Trump to run again, and 55 percent supported Trump’s election in 2024, if he ran, with 21 percent supporting Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida. No other contender hit double digits.

Without Trump as an option, DeSantis led the field with 43 percent, followed by South Dakota Gov. Kristi L. Noem with 11 percent. Former vice president Mike Pence was at 1 percent in the poll with Trump removed.

Gale Norton et al. on a stage in front of a crowd: Supporters greet Trump as he walks out to speak during the final day of the Conservative Political Action Conference on Sunday in Orlando. © Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post Supporters greet Trump as he walks out to speak during the final day of the Conservative Political Action Conference on Sunday in Orlando.

The poll also found 95 percent of attendees wanting the GOP to stick with Trump’s policies and 97 percent approving of his performance in office. “The ‘Make American Great Again’ movement is the base of our movement,” McLaughlin said.

Trump has made plans to start a super PAC, which will be able to raise donations of unlimited size from corporations and individuals, while also exploring the possibility of drafting a bullet-pointed “America First” agenda, which fellow Republicans could sign onto in a show of fealty to his leadership.

He is also moving quickly to formalize a process for endorsing candidates in Republican primaries, with a goal of punishing Republicans who have criticized him in recent months. On Friday, he formally backed a former White House aide, Max Miller, as a primary opponent to Rep. Anthony Gonzalez (R-Ohio), who was one of 10 Republicans to vote for Trump’s impeachment in January. A Trump adviser also has said he is preparing to endorse former Ohio party chair and Trump loyalist Jane Timken to replace retiring Republican Sen. Rob Portman in that state.

In his Sunday speech, Trump listed the names of Republicans in the House and Senate who had voted against him in the latest impeachment this year, earning boos for each but special venom for Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), whom he called a “warmonger.” As he has before, Trump also took credit for the victory of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who has fiercely criticized Trump following the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol by the former president’s supporters.

“The only division is between the Washington, D.C., political hacks and everybody else,” he said of the fights he plans to pick within his party. “We want Republican leaders who are loyal to the voters.”

Trump spent significant time defending his record in fighting the coronavirus pandemic, claiming to have “handed the new administration what everyone is now calling a modern-day medical miracle,” with a variety of effective vaccines. He also attacked Biden for the slow pace of reopening the schools.

“On behalf of the moms, dads and children of America, I call on Joe Biden to get the schools open and get the schools open now,” he said.

a group of people standing in front of a crowd: People walk during the Conservative Political Action Conference on Saturday in Orlando. © Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post People walk during the Conservative Political Action Conference on Saturday in Orlando.

Hanging over the event was an ongoing dispute within the Republican Party and conservative movement over the legitimacy of the 2020 election, which Trump continues to falsely say was stolen from him. Months of such baseless assertions led to the Jan. 6 Capitol siege by Trump supporters who sought to prevent legislators from certifying the election results.

In private conversations, Trump has recently backed away from his unsubstantiated claims that voting machine hacking or election supervisor duplicity had been responsible for his loss, according to people who have spoken with him. But he has continued to claim he was the rightful winner of the election, including repeatedly on Sunday.

“We must pass comprehensive election reforms, and we must do it now,” he said Sunday, before laying out a long list of changes he deemed necessary, including increased citizenship checks for voters, more voter ID requirements, restrictions on absentee voting, additional ballot chain-of-custody rules and a single day for voting, among others. As president, Trump voted under early and absentee rules.

He said changes to voting rules because of the coronavirus pandemic that were not made through legislative acts were “therefore illegal,” even though they were approved by state or local officials, and in some cases judicial rulings.

“The Supreme Court again didn’t have the guts or the courage to do anything about it, and neither did other judges,” he said, flashing anger multiple times at the courts.

Speakers at the conference repeatedly cited false claims of election fraud from the event’s stages.

“My biggest honor today is going to be that, I think, we are going to be on the same stage as, in my opinion, the real, the legitimate, and still the actual president of the United States, Donald Trump,” Goya Foods CEO Robert Unanue said earlier Sunday. “We still have faith that the majority of the people of the United States voted for the president.”

Biden defeated Trump by 7 million votes nationally, and his victories in key swing states like Georgia and Arizona were instrumental in delivering Biden a majority of the electoral votes. Biden has also maintained far higher approval ratings than Trump in his first weeks in office, with 56 percent of Americans saying last month in a Gallup poll that they approve of his presidency. Among Republicans, 34 percent in the same poll approved of Biden’s response to the pandemic.

Trump’s speech was scheduled as the ultimate event of a three-day affair that attracted a wide array of elected Republican leaders, including House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (Calif.) and Sens. Rick Scott (Fla.), Ted Cruz (Tex.) and Josh Hawley (Mo.).

Trump continues to attract acclaim throughout the GOP, despite the second impeachment effort following the riot at the Capitol. Three out of four Republican voters said in a recent Quinnipiac University poll that Trump should continue to play a prominent role in the party, and 89 percent of Republican voters said they opposed convicting Trump of his impeachment charge.

Corey Lewandowski wearing a suit and tie: Former Donald Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski holds a poster for South Dakota Gov. Kristi L. Noem during CPAC on Saturday. © Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post Former Donald Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski holds a poster for South Dakota Gov. Kristi L. Noem during CPAC on Saturday.

Anthony Bouchard, a Wyoming state senator who’s challenging Cheney in the aftermath of her impeachment vote, said he had been recognized all across the conference and thanked for standing up for the president.

“It looks like everybody wants to keep ‘America First’ policies, and she wants to go in some other direction,” Bouchard said.

Former Trump adviser Larry Kudlow used a 25-minute speech Sunday to argue that Biden was taking undeserved credit for coronavirus vaccinations, pointing out that an average of 1.3 million shots were delivered in Trump’s final days and falsely suggesting that the pace was the same after Jan. 20. (On Saturday, a record 2.3 million vaccinations were administered.)

“He achieved successes jammed into four years that nearly every president couldn’t get done in eight years,” Kudlow said of Trump, whom he called “the boss.”

Among the conference’s thousands of attendees, adulation for Trump and support for another campaign ran strong. Liz Matory, a 41-year-old former congressional candidate in Maryland, said she had been a Democrat for most of her life, came to the GOP through her opposition to legal abortion, and was reluctant to support Trump until he won the 2016 nomination. She never looked back.

“I would’ve preferred to have had a second term right now,” Matory said. “If he runs for 2024, he’ll win. Of course, I thought he won in 2020. He’s the only person who exists in our political scene who can afford it — financially, but also emotionally.”

Inside the Orlando Hyatt Regency, signs of support for the former president were everywhere, from Trump 2024 masks and flags to “MAGA hammocks” with stitching that read “Fake News” and “Save America.”

Supporters of the former president who hadn’t paid for CPAC tickets also held rallies outside, dwarfing a group of Democrats who had gathered across the street on Sunday.

Enrique Tarrio — leader of the Proud Boys, a far-right group with a history of violence — mingled in the crowd, taking photos with supporters.

Trump fans waved flags and signs falsely accusing Biden of stealing the election and of more lurid crimes. Some wore merchandise from the Jan. 6 rally that preceded the Capitol riot, while some argued that Trump should be returned to office even before the next election.

“Biden’s obviously not qualified, and Trump proved himself for four years,” said Richard Scott, 70, who’d written “Give Trump Back the Nuclear Codes” on his sign. “He’s still my president.”

Josh Dawsey contributed to this report.

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