Donald Trump at CPAC: Ex-president tears into Biden and his Republican critics; revives 'rigged' election lie

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ORLANDO, Fla. – Donald Trump reentered political life Sunday by attacking President Joe Biden, condemning Republican opponents and proclaiming himself the leader of a GOP riven by election defeats and the pro-Trump insurrection at the U.S. Capitol in January.

"Do you miss me yet?" Trump asked the Conservative Political Action Conference after taking the stage more than an hour after his scheduled start time. "A lot of things going on."

Trump's attacks on other Republicans – and his support of primary challengers to some GOP lawmakers – threaten to divide the party further as it tries to regain control of Congress in 2022 and the White House in 2024.

Before the speech, Republicans said the party can win elections in 2022 and 2024 only by asking voters to agree with them on issues, not on Trump. Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., told CNN's "State of the Union" that the GOP should not put one man on "a pedestal."

If "we can speak to those policies, to those families, then we will win," said Cassidy, one of seven Republican senators who voted to convict Trump on charges of inciting the insurrection Jan. 6. "But if we idolize one person, we will lose."

Trump did not declare a 2024 presidential candidacy in his address to the conference of conservative activists – but he repeatedly hinted at a run while alluding to his false claims of Democratic vote fixing in 2020.

"Who knows? I may even decide to beat them for a third time," Trump said to cheers. At the end of his 90-minute speech, Trump said a Republican candidate will win the White House in 2024 – "and I wonder who that will be? ... Who, who, who will that be?"

Trump also discussed plans to inject himself into the 2022 congressional elections, backing Republicans who subscribe to his "Make America Great Again" agenda – and opposing GOP members who backed impeachment over his role in the Jan. 6 insurrection.

"Get rid of them all," Trump said after calling out the names of all ten House Republicans who voted for impeachment, and all seven Senate Republicans who voted for conviction.

The former president declared he would remain a member of the GOP, denying reports that he is thinking about starting a political party. He told fellow Republicans he would "continue to fight right by your side."

As he did before leaving office, Trump repeatedly made unfounded claims about his election loss to Biden, falsely declaring the system was "rigged" against him, even though such claims were cited as evidence of his guilt in his Senate trial. He never mentioned the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol, nor the people killed and injured in that violent attack.

Trum proposed a bevy of new election laws, including restrictions on mail-in voting that would probably reduce Democratic votes in future elections.

Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., one of the ten House Republicans who voted to impeach Trump, tweeted that he was "proud" to be named among the "heroes" cited in the CPAC speech.

Kinzinger also mocked Trump's claim that he could beat the Democrats again, tweeting that "Trump lost the election FYI."

In a "side note," Kinzinger said "this speech is boring. We can’t win the presidency with this boring, low energy, stream of conscience, weak, has been, choke artist."

In his remarks, Trump bragged about his record, aired his grievances, and ping-ponged from subject to subject – but he did not discuss his two impeachments, nor the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol launched by his supporters.

Trump spent much of his time bashing his successor Joe Biden, claiming he has had "the most disastrous first month of any president in modern history." Trump called on Biden to support reopening schools, despite the pandemic, and stand up to China and its trade practices.

White House officials said neither they nor Biden would comment much on Trump's speech because they would be busy working.

"I wouldn’t say he's thought a lot about the former president’s visit – I was going to say 'performance,' maybe that’s appropriate – at CPAC," said White House press secretary Jen Psaki.

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Sarah Longwell, a Trump critic and executive director of the Republican Accountability Project, called Sunday's speech a "boring, warmed-over version of his greatest hits."

The only "newish" things, she said, "were that Trump will continue to claim the election was stolen, work to unseat Republicans who voted against him on impeachment, and that he plans to freeze the 2024 field by teasing a run."

Some of those Republicans have urged the party to move past Trump, citing his role in the insurrection and calling him a divisive leader who would drag down the party to more defeats.

"I don't believe that he should be playing a role in the future of the party, or the country," said Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., whom Trump condemned in his speech as a "war-monger."

Cheney and like-minded Republicans said Trump's lies about the election provoked the mob on Jan. 6, and could provoke another attack in the future.

President Donald Trump asks attendees at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) if they missed him Feb. 29 in National Harbor, Md.
President Donald Trump asks attendees at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) if they missed him Feb. 29 in National Harbor, Md.

Beyond occasional written statements and brief phone-in interviews on cable television, Trump has laid low since leaving office, especially during the Senate impeachment trial.

The Senate acquitted Trump on charges he incited the riot because prosecutors could not muster the two-thirds vote needed for conviction. Fifty-seven of the 100 senators voted for Trump's conviction, including the seven Republicans singled out by Trump.

The ex-president found a friendly crowd. Speaker after speaker has lauded Trump since CPAC opened Thursday night. Many delegates lined up to take pictures beside a golden statue of Trump, which is decked out in coat-and-tie, beach shorts and flip-flops and carrying a magic wand.

His speech turned CPAC into something of a Trump political rally as delegates cheered and wore Trump-themed hats, T-shirts and pins.

According to a straw poll conducted during the conference, 55% of CPAC delegates say they want Trump to be the Republican nominee in 2024. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who should have had a home state advantage at the conference in Orlando, finishes second with 21% and other possible GOP candidates in single digits.

Several CPAC attendees questioned whether Trump will or should run. A little more than two-thirds of the delegates, 68%, said the ex-president should run again in three years, while 32% said he should not, or had no opinion on the subject.

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Shortly before Trump's speech, one CPAC speaker – Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio – told the crowd Trump is "the leader of the conservative movement” and "the leader of the Republican Party." Delegates gave those lines a standing ovation.

The attacks on Biden by his immediate predecessor are unique in the modern era. Other ex-presidents have criticized their successors, but none has done it as early in the new president's first term as Trump.

Rather than fade from the political scene, as many ex-presidents have, Trump plans to stay in the spotlight.

Trump and his allies plan to get involved in Republican primaries next month. They vowed to back primary challengers to Republicans Trump views as disloyal, particularly the 10 House Republicans who voted for impeachment.

Friday, Trump endorsed former White House aide Max Miller in his challenge to Rep. Anthony Gonzalez, R-Ohio, an impeachment supporter. ("That's another beauty," Trump said of Gonzalez during the CPAC speech.)

Denver Riggleman, a former Republican congressman from Virginia who opposes Trump, said the former president will probably wait to see "how his mini-Trumps" fare in 2022 before deciding whether he will run again in 2024.

Riggleman said Trump will aggressively attack critics while building a "cult of personality" within a Republican Party on the brink of civil war.

"You've got people who are loyal to Trump against people who are loyal to the Constitution," Riggleman said.

Some Democrats would welcome Trump's return to politics. Jaime Harrison, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, said Trump's reemergence would be a gift to Democrats, helping them raise money and defeat GOP election opponents in 2022 and 2024.

"Oh, he's a hot messy gift," Harrison told MSNBC.

Others said Trump's speech will reinforce his domination of the Republican Party. Joe Walsh, a former GOP congressman and conservative critic of Trump, said, "It's his party, and he knows it."

"We all underestimate his hold on the party," Walsh said. "The next four years are his, to do whatever he wants."

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: CPAC: Trump attacks Biden, Republican critics and revives election lie