When Donald Trump boarded Air Force One and said goodbye to Washington on Jan. 20, 2021, he was considered a political pariah. The Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol cast doubt that he could ever show his face in D.C. again, let alone entertain running for president.
Flash forward to July 2022, and the former president is not only still the most popular figure in the GOP but got a hero’s welcome before a friendly audience in his first return to the nation’s capital. Trump spoke at the America First Policy Institute’s first annual summit on Tuesday, just a handful of city blocks from the site of the insurrection that defined his presidency. He showed no remorse — but exhibited all the tell-tale signs of a man eager to run for president again in 2024.
“I ran the first time and I won. Then I ran a second time and I did much better. We got millions and millions more votes,” Trump said. “We may just have to do it again.”
Trump was met with a standing ovation in a ballroom packed with Republican lawmakers, former cabinet officials, administration officials, donors and supporters, before delivering an address that focused on crime and his plans for public safety. He veered into controversy over transgender athletes, immigration and China, and he outlined a proposal to create tent towns on the outskirts of major U.S. cities where the government would relocate the nation’s homeless.
But Trump became most animated when talking about the thing even some allies wish he would drop — his false claims of a “stolen” election, which incited the events of Jan. 6. He promised that the House committee investigating his actions that day would not put a damper on him or the political movement represented by many in the room.
“They really want to damage me so I can no longer go back to work for you, and I don’t think that’s going to happen,” Trump said of the Jan. 6 committee’s work. He was met with a standing ovation from the room. “If I stayed at home and just took it easy, the persecution of Donald Trump would stop immediately. It would stop. But that’s not what I will do.”
That declaration — by an former president whose own party’s congressional leaders denounced him just 18 months ago — was met with chants of “four more years!”
The two-day summit, which concluded with Trump’s speech, was a kind of reunion for the “America First” set working to advance the Trump administration’s agenda post-White House. But it wasn’t just a homecoming. It was a test run for what kind of reception a Trump revival tour could receive in D.C. proper.
Yet his speech wasn’t the only big event in town featuring a prominent Trump-era figure.
Earlier on Tuesday, Vice President Mike Pence — who was not on AFPI’s agenda — spoke at the conservative Young America’s Foundation. It created a split screen moment for the two key figures from Jan. 6, as Washington is still reckoning with the deadly day.
For those gathered at the Marriott Marquis to hear Trump speak, the Trump-Pence rivalry was met with a shrug, and Jan. 6 was either a “political witch hunt” or a mere afterthought.
“I don’t know how deep that rift goes — I think Pence missed his opportunity for greatness and trustworthiness for me,” said Gregg Seymour, a pastor from Las Vegas who flew in for the two-day event. “Do I think people should have stormed the Capitol? Absolutely not. But I think a lot more has been made out of it than the burning of different cities. Nobody talks about how that was a tragedy,” said Amber Colville, a physician from Mississippi who came to hear discussions on health care and Trump’s speech.
Instead, attendees were hopeful Trump might soon announce another run, though many said they were eager to hear him outline a more forward-looking vision, something Trump’s close allies have urged him to do, too. In his speech, Trump painted a picture of America in decay, describing in gruesome detail crimes in cities across the country. He called for hiring more police officers, bringing back controversial “stop and frisk” policies and giving drug dealers the death penalty. He also called for Congress to pass a “landmark package on public health, public safety and mental health reforms,” and said the federal government should protect the right to self defense.
“We need an all out effort to defeat crime in America and strongly defeat it and be tough and be nasty and be mean if we have to,” said Trump.
In his own Washington speech on Tuesday, Pence maintained, as he has before, that he “couldn’t be more proud of the record of the Trump-Pence administration.”
But when asked about what “seems to be a divide” between him and Trump during a question-and-answer session, Pence cast the former president as a politician who may be focused on the past, an implicit rebuke of his preoccupation with the 2020 election.
“I don’t know that the president and I differ on issues, but we may differ on focus,” Pence said. “I truly do believe that elections are about the future, and that it’s absolutely essential — at a time when so many Americans are hurting, so many families are struggling — that we don’t give way to the temptation to look back. But I think the time has come for us to offer a bold, positive agenda to bring America back. And I’ll continue to carry that message all across this nation.”
It’s on this ground that Pence has cautiously been drawing a contrast with Trump. On Tuesday, he cast the midterm elections as a historic clash between “unified conservative action” and the “aggressive liberalism” of the left.
Pence is running far behind Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis in early 2024 primary polls — viewed by some traditionalist Republicans as an unpalatable appendage of Trump, yet by many Trump hard-liners as disloyal for his resistance to Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election.
Pence, despite saying previously that “there’s almost no idea more un-American than the notion” that he could have overturned the election, has largely been reluctant to address questions about Jan 6. Still, two of his top White House aides have recently testified to a federal grand jury investigating matters tied to the riot at the Capitol.
But retired Lt. Gen. Keith Kellogg, who served as Pence’s national security adviser and now works at AFPI, called talk of a giant rift between Pence and Trump “overblown.”
“Washington is a political town, you have to expect it. It is what it is,” Kellogg said.
Marc Lotter, the communications director for AFPI who also worked for Pence, believed both men were actually presenting a similar policy vision. “They’re talking about America First policies in their own voice and their own manners, but they’re talking about the same thing, rebuilding the success we had in the Trump-Pence administration and pushing it forward,” Lotter said.
With Trump’s return, a familiar circus came back as well. Outside the Marriott, protesters shouted and waved flags calling Trump “fascist.” Following the speech, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) taunted them from the hotel’s driveway.
The ballroom was packed with lawmakers like House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, Reps. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.) and Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), former top Trump administration officials like Larry Kudlow and Small Business Administrator Linda McMahon, and Trump’s former White House aides and campaign staff. Also in the audience were Republican VIPs like RNC Chair Ronna McDaniel, top Trump aides like Stephen Miller and others now working with AFPI, like Kellyanne Conway and Brooke Rollins.
On the sidelines, aides reminisced about their time in the White House. Former White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who is running for governor in Arkansas, soberly recounted an overnight Christmas trip to Iraq to visit soldiers and joked about her warm welcome with the conservative crowd here in D.C.
“It’s pretty exciting to be in Washington and actually have people cheer for you when you get behind a podium,” Sanders said.
Eric Ueland, who served as Trump’s legislative affairs director in the White House, said the summit at times felt like a White House reunion.
“It’s great to see people and share war stories — but also now try to figure out OK, where are we going next?” Ueland said.
David Siders contributed to this report