WASHINGTON – Former President Donald Trump returned to the nation's capital Tuesday and gave a policy speech to an organization developing an agenda for what he called "the next Republican president" – someone that many audience members clearly want to be Trump himself.
Speaking to the America First Policy Institute – created, financed, and led by Trump supporters and former administration officials – Trump talked mostly about anti-crime proposals, but also found time to echo false claims about his 2020 election loss to President Joe Biden.
"You know what, that's going to be a story for a long time," Trump said at one point during a speech that lasted more than 90 minutes.
Near the end, members of the crowd began chanting "Four More Years!"
Trump said he plans to give a series of policy speeches in the weeks ahead, covering very familiar topics like immigration and completing the border wall with Mexico, education, trade, and election law changes.
Trump did not discuss in detail the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection by supporters trying to overturn the election, except to condemn the investigations into the riot and his role in it.
Delegates to the America First Policy Institute ate it up. Brooke Rollins, president and CEO of AFPI, and also a former director of Trump's White House Domestic Policy Council, introduced the speech by calling him "one of the greatest living Americans" and "the president that saved America."
It's no small irony that Trump pitched a 2024 election agenda while a special congressional committee and prosecutors investigate alleged attempts to steal the 2020 contest, analysts said.
"Trump’s anti-democratic movement continues to pose a unique and ongoing threat to our country’s institutions and civil rights," said Skye Perryman, president and CEO of the organization Democracy Forward.
'Tough ... Nasty ... Mean'
Making his first trip back to Washington, D.C., since leaving office on Jan. 20, 2021, Trump capped a two-day conference on an agenda that also includes increased oil production, opposition to abortion, support for police, and, above all, aggressive attacks on Biden and his administration.
Trump focused the first part of his speech on public safety – "our country is now a cesspool of crime" – and said government has to do more to help "law enforcement heroes," from increased funding to better legal liability shields.
Outlining an aggressive agenda, Trump said he wants to make it easier to send the National Guard into states and cities to fight crime. He again called for the death penalty for drug dealers.
Decrying the number of tents for the homeless that have sprung up in Washington, D.C., and other cites, Trump said government should instead send set up tent communities on large and inexpensive parcels on the outskirts of cities.
Calling for an "all out effort" against crime, Trump said the country will have to "be tough and be nasty and be mean if we have to."
Trump's hardline anti-crime plans drew criticism from law enforcement professionals.
"The former president is delivering a straight up fascist and authoritarian speech, complete with executions, military takeovers and forcible re-locations of citizens," national security lawyer Bradley P. Moss said.
Investigations of Trump
On another law enforcement note, Trump again criticized all the investigations into his own conduct. He cited the probes of Russian interference in the 2016 election and efforts to pressure Ukraine into investigate Biden and his son Hunter Biden, an item that led to his first impeachment.
Now a grand jury in Atlanta and, possibly, the Justice Department in Washington are investigating Trump's attempts to overturn the election and the subsequent Jan. 6 insurrection.
"They want to damage me so I can no longer go back to work for you," Trump said. "And I don't think that's going to happen."
At one point, Trump described Democratic criticisms of violent police practices as the "Big Lie," the same phrase the former president's critics apply to him for his false claims of voter fraud during the 2020 election.
The Republican Accountability Project, an anti-Trump group that monitored his speech, responded by tweeting: "Apparently, he forgot that his supporters attacked Capitol Police officers on Jan. 6 because they believed his Big Lie – that the election was stolen."
In an interview Tuesday with NBC News, Attorney General Merrick Garland did not rule out the possibility that Trump might be prosecuted over his actions around Jan. 6.
Asked if indicting a former president might tear apart the country, Garland said: "Look, we pursue justice without fear or favor ... We intend to hold everyone, anyone who was criminally responsible for the events surrounding Jan. 6, for any attempt to interfere with the lawful transfer of power from one administration to another, accountable."
Trump's appearance at a downtown hotel near the Washington convention center also drew protesters. One drove a mobile video board that broadcast messages mocking Trump, including one that said: "Welcome back to Washington, D.C., Donald ... You lost."
Inside the hotel, demonstrators tossed paper fliers down the atrium to the floor where the America First Policy Institute conference took place. They read "Indict Trump," as did a banner that demonstrators unfurled from a floor above.
Trump, Pence and 2024
Trump did not make any formal announcement about 2024. nor did he talk about other Republicans who might vie for the GOP nomination – a group that includes his own vice president, Mike Pence.
Hours before Trump's speech, Pence outlined his own agenda in a speech before the Young America's Foundation, a conservative outreach organization. He also downplayed any divisions with Trump, saying he is proud of the record of the "Trump-Pence administration."
Pence, not for the first time, then appeared to refer to his belief that Trump is spending too much time protesting the 2020 election, saying the party should not "look back" as it attempts to regain control of Congress and the White House.
"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."
Pence made the same point on Friday, as he and Trump traveled to Arizona to campaign for competing Republican gubernatorial candidates. In a tweet that day, Pence said: "If the Republican Party allows itself to become consumed by yesterday’s grievances, we will lose."
Trump and AFPI
The America First Policy Institute has not endorsed Trump – it is a tax-exempt 501(c)3 organization, and is forbidden to do so – but the delegates frequently cheered and applauded the many mentions of his name on the conference's first day Monday.
Some Republicans have described the AFPI as a Trump government in waiting. William Kristol, a conservative critic of the ex-president, said the group "seems to aim at providing a quasi-intellectual veneer for Trump."
AFPI officials and delegates to its conference rejected the notion that they belong to Trump. They said they are promoting an agenda that any candidate can use.
"The policies are there for whomever," said Marc Lotter, chief communications officer for AFPI. "We're putting it out there for anyone."
The first day of the AFPI was devoted to panels on such Trumpian issues as energy production, "safe and secure communities," foreign policy, and battling the "Washington Swamp."
On Tuesday, hours before Trump's speech, the policy institute will devote a panel to the former president's favorite topic: "Make it Easy to Vote and Hard to Cheat."
Hogan Gidley, a former spokesman for the Trump White House, said the America First Policy Institute is dedicated topromoting "policy prescriptions" that can help the country and defeat Biden and the Democrats down the line.
Gidley, who is director of the Center for Election Integrity with AFPI, said he didn't know if Trump plans to run again, but was full of praise for the ex-president and his record in office.
"Donald Trump made it happen once," Gidley said. "I'm supremely confident Donald Trump can make it happen again."
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Donald Trump gives policy address Tuesday, election gripes included