Former president Donald Trump delivered the closing speech of the 2023 Conservative Political Action Conference, where he targeted his enemies not just in the Democratic Party and the media, but also the Republican Party.
The former president spoke in grave terms before a crowd at the Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center in Oxon Hill, Maryland on the third full day of the gathering of right-wing elected officials and activists.
“This is the final battle,” Trump told the crowd at CPAC of the 2024 presidential race and the fate of the country itself. “This is it.”
And if he loses the 2024 race, Mr Trump warned “we no longer have a country.”
Throughout the address he also called out Republican establishment figures like former Speaker Paul Ryan, who led the House of Representatives for the first two years of his presidency, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, whom he has frequently criticised for not helping him overturn the 2020 presidential election results.
“The Republican Party was ruled by freaks, neocons, open border zealots and fools,” he said. “We’re never going back to the party of Paul Ryan, Karl Rove, and Jeb Bush.”
Mr Trump also decried the numerous investigations, including his first impeachment as well as the criminal and civil investigations in Manhattan, New York state and in Fulton County, Georgia.
His speech came shortly after the conference revealed that 62 per cent of attendees preferred him for president in 2024. His closest potential challenger, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, earned only 20 per cent of the support. The governor chose not to attend the conference after he hosted the last two annual conferences in Florida.
For years, CPAC served as a launching pad for conservative talent and a place where potential Republican presidential candidates can test the waters – Mr Trump made his first major political address at CPAC in 2011.
Mr Trump’s dominance over the Republican Party – and the nascent 2024 race – was fully on display throughout the conservative confab. Nikki Haley, who served as ambassador to the United Nations during the Trump administration and is so far the only major Republican candidate to declare her candidacy against him, also spoke at the conference. But her speech, along with that of former secretary of state Mike Pompeo, received little fanfare.
“BYou can’t out-Trump Trump, right? You’ve got to be your own candidate,” Hogan Gidley, a former Trump White House press aide, told The Independent. “And I’ve yet to see whether or not that’s going to sell here.”
Throughout the conference, many attendees wore shirts with the former president’s likeness and one woman made speed paintings of Mr Trump. Others wore shirts commemorating Ashli Babbit, whom police shot during the January 6 riot. When someone tried to interrupt Mr Trump’s speech by playing hip-hop music, attendees roared “USA”.
The only other figure who received as much fanfare was Kari Lake, the failed Arizona gubernatorial candidate who lost to Katie Hobbs, who headlined the Ronald Reagan dinner on Friday and then delivered a speech on Saturday afternoon before Mr Trump’s address. During that speech, she claimed that someone showed up at her home and offered to bribe her to drop out of politics.
Mr Trump also used the venue to criticise President Joe Biden and lay out his new initiatives, pledging he would stop “World War III” while criticising aid to Ukraine and Nato.
Throughout the speech, Mr Trump touted his record as president. But at the same time, he and CPAC as a whole largely sidestepped two of his biggest accomplishments – the nomination of the Supeme Court justices who helped overturn Roe v Wade and Operation Warp Speed, his initiative to create a Covid-19 vaccine. By contrast, the conference held a panel entitled “A Real Heartstopper” that featured Ronny Jackson, the former White House physician-turned-congressman from Texas, calling for an investigation into vaccine efficacy.
Rather, much of the conference and panels focused on attacking transgender people, with conservative pundit Michael Knowles calling for “transgenderism” to be “eradicated”.
Indeed, Mr Trump received some of his biggest applause when he announced his policies on the subject.
“And will revoke every policy of chemical castration and sexual mutilation of our children,” he said, which earned a standing ovation. “That will take place on day one.”
Mr Trump held court until the end. Even as people filed out of the speech, some yelled “We want Trump.”