OXON HILL, Md. — Donald Trump returned to a Conservative Political Action Conference recast in his image Saturday, capping a three-day agenda heavy with adoration for the coup-attempting former president but considerably less-well attended by activists and presidential contenders alike.
Trump, within minutes of taking the stage at the Gaylord National Resort, went into his typical remarks, disparaging the United States as a “filthy communist country” and attacking Democrats and the news media.
“They’re not coming after me. They’re coming after you. I’m just standing in their way,” he said. “We will drive out the globalists. We will kick out the communists.”
And even though dozens of rows in the back remained empty, Trump thanked the fire marshal for letting in so many of his supporters. “Look at all these people. They’re up to the rafters,” he said.
Trump called prosecutors investigating him “racist” — the ones in New York and Georgia are Black — and claimed they only went after him because he is likely to win the presidency again. He continued lying about the 2020 election having been stolen from him: “We did much better in 2020 than we did in 2016.” He added later, “I won that second election, and I won it by a lot.”
He relitigated, at length, his two impeachments: The first for his attempted extortion of Ukraine and the second for his incitement of the Jan. 6, 2021, assault on the Capitol that capped off his coup attempt to remain in office.
And he promised that if he won reelection, he would take revenge on those who didn’t respect his followers. “I am your retribution,” he said.
Trump, during his presidency, repeatedly attacked NATO and had planned to withdraw from the alliance in his second term — thereby giving Russian dictator Vladimir Putin his top wish. After Putin invaded Ukraine last year, Trump called him a “genius” for doing so.
On Saturday, he promised that if he won the White House, he would quickly end the war because he “gets along great with Putin.”
“I’m the only candidate who can make this promise: I will prevent — and very easily — World War III. Very easily. And you’re going to have World War III, by the way, you’re going to have World War III if something doesn’t happen fast,” he said.
And although his aides had promised reporters that Trump would offer a forward-looking vision for his return to the White House. Instead, his 105-minutes on stage was largely a repeat of his oft-repeated lies and grievances.
Saturday’s attendance was higher than on the first two days of speakers. Still, the crowd was nevertheless smaller than in previous conferences, particularly the previous two, which were held in Orlando, Florida, to evade stricter COVID-19 restrictions in the Washington area.
Also not attending were most of the potential 2024 Republican contenders. Of the 14 major names either running or considering a run, only three attended CPAC: Trump, former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley and former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
Eight years ago — the last time CPAC was held with an approaching presidential election and without a Republican incumbent in the White House — the conference attracted a full dozen aspirants.
GOP consultants said the decision by likely 2024 candidates, including Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, not to attend makes sense, given how overtly pro-Trump CPAC has become.
Indeed, on Saturday alone, speakers included former Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, pillow monger and election conspiracy theorist Mike Lindell, failed Arizona gubernatorial nominee Kari Lake and House GOP conference Chair Elise Stefanik — all of whom spoke glowingly about Trump.
“Most candidates make rational political decisions based on their path to victory,” said Saul Anuzis, a former chair of the Michigan Republican Party and a CPAC attendee since 1978.
Trump’s speech to several thousand of his fans was the closest thing to a rally he has staged since announcing his 2024 candidacy in November. Trump’s fundraising has been weak compared with what he was collecting during his 2020 campaign and its immediate aftermath, and rallies cost several hundred thousand dollars apiece to stage.
He has done smaller visits to New Hampshire and South Carolina, as well as a recent trip to the site of the train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio. After DeSantis set up a trip to Iowa later this month, Trump announced that he would be there, too, on the same day.
Trump faces criminal investigations by Atlanta prosecutors and the Department of Justice for his Jan. 6, 2021, coup attempt and his actions in the weeks leading up to that day, including his efforts to coerce Georgia officials into overturning his election loss in that state.
DOJ prosecutors are separately investigating his retention of top-secret documents in defiance of a subpoena, while the New York City district attorney has renewed a probe into his hush-money payment to a porn actor just ahead of the 2016 election.