OXON HILL, Md. — President Donald Trump arrived at the Conservative Political Action Conference as a conqueror, not just of Hillary Clinton and all other 2016 contenders, but of any rival visions for what the modern Republican Party should stand for.
And in a Friday appearance at CPAC, he let the crowd know it.
In an impassioned if disjointed 49-minute speech, Trump veered from angry attacks on the media to election victory laps before he took something of a dry run of the themes for his joint congressional address next week.
“The core conviction of our movement is that we are a nation that put and will put its own citizens first,” Trump declared at one point. “The GOP will be, from now on, the party also of the American worker,” he said at another.
Trump promised to build a border wall, repeal President Barack Obama’s health care law, cut taxes for the middle class “massively,” dramatically boost spending on the military and renegotiate trade deals in a robust display of nationalism as he declared there is no “global flag.”
“I’m not representing the globe,” Trump said. “I’m representing your country.”
In true Trump fashion, however, he waited until the last 30 minutes to outline his vision of what the GOP and conservatism stands for in the era of Trump, instead taking the first 10 minutes of his speech whacking at “fake news” and accusing reporters of concocting sources from thin air. “They just make them up,” he said.
Still, Trump proved his counselor Kellyanne Conway right when she predicted, in her own CPAC appearance, that “by tomorrow, this will be ‘TPAC’ when he’s here, no doubt.”
Trump was greeted by huge applause and waving red “Make America Great Again” hats at almost every turn. A CPAC crowd that in five of the six previous straw polls leading up to the 2016 and 2012 elections had selected libertarian-leaning Ron Paul or Rand Paul as their preferred presidential standard-bearer cheered mightily as Trump promised “one of the greatest military buildups in American history.”
Trump’s appearance was the first by a sitting president at CPAC in more than a decade, since George W. Bush in 2003, and the first by a president in his first year since Ronald Reagan in 1981. Trump pledged to return often, and noted that the first speech of his political career was at CPAC.
Still, it wasn’t so long ago that Trump and his political team were CPAC outsiders rather than the center of celebration and attention. Four years ago, Trump’s chief strategist Steve Bannon was kept out of CPAC and created a rival event he called “The Uninvited.”
“I want to thank you for finally inviting me to CPAC,” Bannon said pointedly to Matt Schlapp, the American Conservative Union Chairman, on stage Thursday.
That same year, Trump opened his speech to CPAC by lecturing attendees that Republicans who dared to campaign on cutting Social Security, Medicare and Medicare would end up as electoral losers.
“The Republican Party is in serious trouble,” Trump said then in a speech that previewed his 2016 campaign themes — curbing illegal immigration, rebuilding the economy and complaining about the media — all the way down his closing slogan, “We have to make America great again, our problems will be solved.”
Trump received polite applause as a celebrity curiosity in 2013. It was thunderous as commander in chief in 2017.
Trump opened Friday with complaints about the “dishonest media” and saying “they shouldn’t be allowed to use sources unless they use somebody’s name.” The comments came only hours after the White House had held a briefing for reporters in which they had insisted on anonymity.
Trump’s tenure has been racked by infighting among his own staff and leaks from intelligence agencies, including about ties between campaign officials and Russia.
Trump also recounted how he had been underestimated by the press in 2016 in what began to sound eerily like his campaign stump speech. At one point, anti-Clinton campaign rally chants of “Lock her up” rang back out in the hall.
But nearly thirty minutes into his speech, Trump pivoted to a preview of next Tuesday’s prime time address, as he ticked through his first month’s accomplishments and outlined what he has planned next, including on health care, the border, the military and trade.
“The era of empty talk is over,” Trump said in a new line for him.
“One by one we’re checking off the promises we made to the people of the United States,” he said. “One by one. And we will not stop until it’s done.”
A day after Bannon had pledged that Trump would usher in the “deconstruction of the administrative state,” Trump said American was “going to be bigger and better and stronger than ever before.”
And then, when he was done, the same song (“You can’t always get what you want”) blared from the loudspeakers just as it had on the campaign. Trump gave a final fist pump before walking off stage and heading back to the White House.