Republicans are holding their annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) for the first time since former President Donald Trump lost the 2020 presidential election, with Trump still at the center of the spotlight.
Trump is scheduled to deliver a keynote speech Sunday to the conference in Orlando, Florida, making his first major public appearance since leaving office on January 20.
A Trump aide told multiple media outlets the topic of Trump’s talk would be “the future of the Republican Party and the conservative movement,” along with President Joe Biden’s “disastrous” immigration policies.
The conference is one of the most prominent annual gatherings for conservatives and comes at a time of growing debate within the Republican Party over whether to distance themselves from the former president or whether to continue to tie their future with his.
Fissures in the party
Rifts in the Republican Party grew wider this month following the impeachment trial of Trump in which he was acquitted by a minority of the Senate in a 57-43 vote.
Although Trump’s defense was able to prevent two-thirds of the chamber from finding him guilty of inciting the mob that overran the Capitol on January 6, seven Republicans joined all the Democratic senators in voting to convict the former president.
Trump has lashed out at those Republican senators along with 10 Republicans in the House of Representatives who voted to approve the articles of impeachment.
His ire has recently been focused on Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, the nation's most senior elected Republican. McConnell voted to acquit Trump on a procedural point shared by many in the Republican Party that there was no constitutional ground to convict someone who was no longer in office. Despite his vote to acquit, McConnell said Trump was “practically and morally responsible for provoking the events” that led to the Capitol siege.
In a statement, Trump responded that “Mitch is a dour, sullen and unsmiling political hack, and if Republican senators are going to stay with him, they will not win again.”
Despite the rift, McConnell indicated Thursday that he would not let the dispute interfere with Republican efforts to win the White House in 2024, including if Trump were to run again. When asked during an interview with Fox News if he would support Trump if he won the party’s nomination in 2024, McConnell replied, “Absolutely.”
While some Republican lawmakers have expressed displeasure with Trump, the former president retains the strong backing of many state and local parties who have issued a string of censures to Republicans who did not support Trump in his impeachment trial.
Trump has hinted that his days in politics are not over but has yet to say what role he wants to have moving forward.
“Our historic, patriotic and beautiful movement to Make America Great Again has only just begun,” Trump said in a statement following the impeachment vote.
“In the months ahead, I have much to share with you, and I look forward to continuing our incredible journey together to achieve American greatness for all of our people,” he added.
Republican South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, a strong ally of Trump in recent years, argued recently that Trump was “the most vibrant member of the Republican Party.”
“All I can say is that the most potent force in the Republican Party is President Trump. We need Trump,” he told “Fox News Sunday” this month.
Some other Republicans have argued the party should move away from Trump, including Senator Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, who was one of the lawmakers to vote against Trump at the impeachment trial.
“The Republican Party is more than just one person. The Republican Party is about ideas,” he said this month on ABC’s “This Week.”
While Cassidy argued for a new direction for the party at large, his own standing within the party could suffer for going against Trump. Earlier this month, he joined the growing list of Republicans to be censured by their state parties for their votes to convict Trump at the impeachment trial.
Representative Liz Cheney, who was one of the 10 Republicans to vote for the article of impeachment and who was censured by her state party for doing so, was criticized again this week when asked if the former president should speak at the conservative conference.
She said it was “up to CPAC,” before adding, "I've been clear in my views about President Trump and the extent to which, following January 6, I don't believe he should be playing a role in the party."
Trump has a long history with CPAC, founded in 1973, and the speech he gave to the group in 2011 is credited with helping to kick-start his political career.
The roster of speakers at this year’s conference, which began Thursday, features a number of former Trump administration officials who have been closely aligned with him, including former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem.
Not on the list is Trump’s former vice president, Mike Pence. Media reports said Pence was invited to address the conference but declined.
Pence and Trump ended their four-year political partnership on tense terms after Pence certified the results of the 2020 presidential election for Biden despite objections from Trump.
Also not speaking at this year’s conference is McConnell nor any of the Republican lawmakers who voted for Trump’s impeachment.
The chairman of CPAC, Matt Schlapp, is a close ally of Trump, and he has ensured that the conference is a chorus of voices who support the former president. He also has organized conference panels on election integrity to look into Trump’s claims, without evidence, that illegal voting cost Trump the 2020 presidential election.
CPAC is usually held near Washington but was moved this year to Orlando because local COVID restrictions there allow indoor events, as long as attendees are socially distanced and wear masks.
The conference gives Trump an opportunity to broadcast his message to the Republican Party, a task that has become more difficult to do since his medium of choice, Twitter, suspended his account following the Capitol siege.
Trump has kept a relatively low profile since he left the White House on January 20.
Despite debate among some in the Republican Party over how much influence Trump should have, the former president’s approval among rank-and-file Republicans remains strong. Gallup reported this month that Trump's approval among self-described Republicans stood at 94%.