‘We’ll do it again’: Trump hints at third run for president during CPAC

ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — Leading Republicans spent much of three days either avoiding Donald Trump’s core grievances or ignoring him altogether as they united behind a midterm message designed to win back the voters whom the polarizing former president had alienated during his tenure.

That changed Saturday night.

Facing thousands of cheering activists at the annual meeting of the Conservative Political Action Conference, Trump falsely blamed his defeat in the 2020 election on widespread voter fraud, for which there is no evidence. As Russian troops advanced towards the Ukrainian capital in an invasion widely condemned by Western leaders, Trump called Russian President Vladimir Putin “smart”.

“Of course he’s smart,” Trump said, doubling down on the Russian leader’s praise that many other Republicans shunned in the wake of the invasion. “But the real problem is that our leaders are stupid. Idiot. So silly.”

While Trump voiced his support for the Ukrainian people and called the country’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, a “brave man,” he also pointed to his ties to other high-profile autocrats. He specifically highlighted his friendly relations with China’s Xi Jinping and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

Trump then left no doubt that he was the most powerful voice in Republican politics by indicating that he would run for president a third time in 2024. “We did it twice, and we will do it again,” Trump said. “We will do it again, a third time.”

Until Trump’s appearance, the lies about voter fraud, the focus of last year’s conference, had been an afterthought among key speakers. No one repeated Trump’s rhetoric of approval towards Putin. And some prominent Republicans haven’t even mentioned Trump’s name.

Instead, those most likely to seek the GOP presidential nomination in 2024 not named Trump have united behind an agenda that includes increased parental control of schools, opposition to pandemic-related mandates and rejection ferocious ‘woke’ culture. The message from more than half a 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 the trumpism.

Far from there. The former president was a frequent topic among some of the conference’s lesser-known speakers. T-shirts proclaiming “Trump won” were sold in the hallways. And Trump is set to be announced the landslide winner of CPAC’s 2024 presidential preference poll on Sunday.

Still, conference organizer Matt Schlapp, president of the American Conservative Union, noted that Trump did not have an absolute lock on his party base.

He pointed to Florida Governor Ron DeSantis in particular, who was a crowd favorite throughout the first three days of the four-day conference. Audience members cheered almost every time DeSantis’ name was mentioned or his photo appeared on large screens.

“Trump looms large,” Schlapp said in an interview. “No. 1 is, is he still running? And it’s overwhelming that people want him. But there’s a diversity of opinion.

And while Trump’s more controversial supporters were generally given more low-key speaking slots during the four-day program, they weren’t excluded. Rep. Majorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., appeared at a panel Saturday morning hours after being introduced to a conference of pro-Trump white nationalists.

Trump gave Taylor Greene a particularly hearty shoutout during his speech as he ticked off Republican officials in attendance.

“I refuse to be quiet,” Taylor Greene said earlier in the day in a brief appearance as she railed against “democratic communists.”

Despite Trump’s dominance at the helm of the Republican Party, other party leaders are increasingly optimistic they have found a forward-looking strategy to overcome pro-Trump extremism and broaden the appeal of the party with Congressional control in play in November.

It’s essentially the same playbook Republican Governor of Virginia Glenn Youngkin used last fall when he won in the swing state by dodging Trump and his biggest grievances, including the misconception that the 2020 presidential election was plagued by mass voter fraud.

“There are people who may have never voted the same way as you in a presidential race and they are really angry,” Florida Sen. Marco Rubio said Friday. “And that’s why I believe that despite all the negative we’ve heard, the pendulum is swinging.”

Democrats cling to wafer-thin House and Senate majorities, and voter sentiment has moved in a worrying direction for them since President Joe Biden took office in January 2021. In an AP-NORC poll conducted from February 18 to 21, 70% of Americans said the country was going in the wrong direction. As few as 44% said the same in April 2021.

Some prominent Republicans seemed determined on CPAC not to help Democrats by embracing Trump.

Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley, who tried to block certification of Biden’s election victory after the Jan. 6 Capitol attack, dodged questions about whether he would challenge Trump in a potential match in 2024.

“I said I’m not planning on running for president,” Hawley said. He also declined to say if he wanted Trump to run again in 2024: “I never give him advice, including on that.”

Hawley also said it was a mistake for Republicans like Trump to offer Putin soft praise. “Putin is our enemy. Let’s be clear about this,” Hawley said.

DeSantis, who also declined to rule out a 2024 presidential bid should Trump run, did not mention the former president in his 20-minute speech, instead focusing on his resistance to mask and vaccine mandates.

Trump’s former secretary of state Mike Pompeo spoke about his work in the Trump administration, but he did not repeat his own recent flattering comments about Putin, in which he called the Russian leader “very capable” and said he had “tremendous respect for him.”

South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, seen as a potential running mate for Trump in 2024, has spoken out about the 2016 presidential election and unsubstantiated claims that ruling Democrats “spied” on the Trump campaign. But she quickly pivoted to the future.

“We have fantastic fighters, like President Donald Trump. But he is not alone. The American people are on our side,” Noem said.


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