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Former President Trump headlines conservative gathering CPAC

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Conservative Political Action Conference 2021 attendees are in Orlando, Florida as the annual conference gets underway. Former President Donald Trump is set to make his first post-presidency speech Sunday at the event. Politico Playbook co-author, Tara Palmeri, joins CBSN with a preview of what's to come at CPAC.

Video Transcript

ANNE-MARIE GREEN: So the annual Conservative Political Action Conference is officially underway in Orlando, Florida. Organized and sponsored by the American Conservative Union, the Conference-- the Conference, rather-- is the largest gathering of conservative activists in the United States. And this year, the focus is on former President Trump, who is scheduled to make his first public speech since leaving the White House.

So joining us now from Orlando to talk more about what we can expect from the event this year is "Politico Playbook" co-author Tara Palmeri. Thank you so much for joining us, Tara. So I guess, first off, just give us a snapshot of what things are like on the ground there at CPAC. What are the big names that will be attending? What are the issues that they will be discussing? What's on the agenda?

TARA PALMERI: Well, despite the fact that we're in the middle of a pandemic and basically no major company would be holding a conference at this point, it's amazing that there is such a big turnout. People are showing up in droves, the grassroots of the conservative party. And it seems like the one person on their mind, on their lips, is President Trump.

And, you know, this is an opportunity for 2024 hopefuls to come and make their pitch to grassroots and do their stump speech. You've got Senator Tom Cotton coming up this afternoon. You've got Senator Josh Hawley, Donald Trump, Jr. coming up this afternoon. They are all considered-- widely considered to be potential 2024 nominees.

But it's almost like all the air has been sucked out of the room by the grand finale on Sunday, which is President Trump. And there's this-- this picture that's made the rounds on social media of a gold-plated Trump statue in some sort of, like, boxer shorts, red, white, and blue boxer shorts. And it's just sort of, like, a symbol of everything here, a gilded statue of, really, the leader of the conservative movement right now.

And I think all eyes for us political types and reporters to see, like, how far do these 2024 potentials go in terms of embracing President Trump? How much do they push on voter fraud and the fact that the election was stolen-- that is, in their minds? And the bigger issue behind the voter fraud-- the voter fraud allegations is how it depresses voting and how that will affect future elections.

So I don't think that the Republican Party has completely squared that line away. With claiming that your votes don't count, how does that drive people to the polls?

VLADIMIR DUTHIERS: It's really interesting, Tara. And one of the things that I find kind of remarkable given that former President Trump is going to be speaking at CPAC is what we just heard yesterday from Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. Remember what Mitch McConnell said about the events of the insurrection when talking about President Trump's role in it.

He essentially said that the President of the United States was responsible for the events that led up to the January 6 insurrection. He then yesterday, all of a sudden, says he would also support President Trump should he win the party's nomination. He absolutely would support, is in fact the quote. "Absolutely" is the quote.

And, you know, just a couple of weeks ago, he voted to acquit the president, but he criticized what he called a disgraceful dereliction of duty. So that are-- those are the words that Mitch McConnell used to describe the former president-- disgraceful dereliction of duty. But now he's saying he'd support him again in 2024. So what are you seeing there within the Republican Party?

On one hand, it seems performative to say to the American people in the wake of that attack, you know, here's what Donald Trump did and why he's responsible, and we should never let this happen ever again. Oh, by the way, let's nominate him again for president of the United States.

TARA PALMERI: It's a really interesting point. You know, they're trying to have it both ways-- Mitch McConnell, Nikki Haley, and others-- Kevin McCarthy. I think it's also interesting that Mitch McConnell was disinvited from CPAC this year. He's-- my sources tell me he is going to be the boogieman of CPAC.

You know, he is a symbol of the establishment. And this conference every year is really about the grassroots, right? And we know-- and I know from my sources that President Trump plans to take aim at Mitch McConnell and point out all of the seats that he claimed that the party won in both the House and the Senate because of his leadership, not because of McConnell's, right?

It's really dividing a line between the two Republican parties. It's just another battle in the GOP Civil War. And, you know, like you said, this is President Trump's first speech since January 6, since leaving office. And I think all eyes are just on the level of fury, how he positions himself.

My sources tell me that privately he keeps saying he's going to run in 2024. They're all skeptical, right? But the truth is that all the polling shows that he is the most popular Republican in the Republican Party by a long shot. The only person who comes even close to him, according to our Morning Consult polls, is Vice President Pence, and he's polling around 12%. Trump's over 50% in terms of popularity with Republicans in terms of being chosen as the potential candidate for the nomination, the nominee for the Republican Party.

So it's just like-- it's interesting. You'll see-- and I'm going to be looking really closely at Tom Cottin. I'm going to be looking really closely at Josh Hawley. You know, how much do they praise Trump? How much do they align themselves with him as the leader of the party? How much do they see his-- you know, his support as the ticket, as the key to being the Republican nominee? I think that's something we're all looking out for right now at CPAC. But right now, it just feels like Trump PAC.

ANNE-MARIE GREEN: Hmm. And so that leads me sort of to my next question about the evolution of this gathering, what you've noticed. You know, there are going to be conversations about voter fraud. And I think, like, talking about voter fraud is a way to talk about, you know, a stolen election without saying a stolen election, right?

Let's talk about voter fraud, because who can't get behind that? When we know there's no widespread voter fraud. We've known that forever. It's been proven over and over again. There are one-off situations, but nothing that would flip an election in any way, shape, or form. And, you know, as I'm looking at how--

TARA PALMERI: Not in the millions of votes-- yeah.

ANNE-MARIE GREEN: Exactly.

TARA PALMERI: Not in the millions of votes that they've claimed, right.

ANNE-MARIE GREEN: And as I'm sort of-- right. And as you're watching sort of on Capitol Hill, as more moderate, if you want, Republicans are vilified, censured back in their home states, are-- what we're seeing at CPAC, has it morphed from kind of a conversation about conservative values into kind of a focus on the most kind of extreme, I guess, ends of the spectrum when it comes to conservative thought? Or beyond that, beyond conservative thought into-- I don't know-- conspiracy theories.

TARA PALMERI: So I think CPAC has always been a reflection of the party, right, the grassroots of the party. And the grassroots of the party is becoming more extreme. This is the Republican Party right now. President Trump still won 74 million votes. That's a lot of votes, more Republican-- more votes than any Republican in the past decade.

So, you know, what you hear at CPAC over the next few days, those-- those ideas, those thoughts that kind of percolate in the fringes, sometimes they tend to become, you know, the actual talking points later on, the standard bearers, the issues in the conservative party. I think, you know, you can't ignore the grassroots.

I went out to Wyoming after Liz Cheney voted, you know, to impeach President Trump. And I really struggled to find anyone to support her. That is a Trump state. I think he got 80 points in that state in the 2020 election.

And it was Trump before Cheney. You know, Cheney represented the establishment to them, and they felt that her vote didn't reflect them. And the grassroots loves Trump. And I think that the-- that these-- these Republicans are in a tough spot. Unless they're in very moderate, suburban swing districts, you know, they've got to-- they sort of feel like they have to toe the line. And, you know, the line is Trump now.

VLADIMIR DUTHIERS: Yeah. It's very clear that that's the case. So you mentioned that the-- the party is Trump. And he's headlining this conference. Any idea what we can expect to hear? You know, the-- the-- I don't know if it's a risk, Tara, but, you know, what I think we can all surmise is if you just take a look at the letter that President Trump-- the statement that President Trump released after he was acquitted in his impeachment trial, you know, he attacked Mitch McConnell, And? He claimed, once again, that he won the election.

So I suspect that what we'll hear from the former president are a list of grievances of the people that have wronged him, a lot of whining about why, you know, Democrats and the lamestream media attacked him relentlessly for four years. And, again, sort of the notion that he won the election. And you'll probably hear people cheering that notion, which is absolutely false.

TARA PALMERI: Right. I mean, Trump is sort of like the martyr of the party, right? Like that's his position right now. He sees, you know, Mar-a-Lago, Palm Beach, Florida as the center of his Republican Party. And he will be trying to distance himself from Washington in his speech as much as possible. That's what aides have told me.

He will blast Mitch McConnell. He'll blast the establishment. He'll try to say that they're not in touch with the party. He'll try to-- sorry about that. I think I may have lost you. But he'll try to point out that there are a lot of seats-- he'll claim that there are seats in both the Senate and the House that were won because of him, not because of Mitch McConnell.

He'll try to solidify himself as the leader of the party outside of Washington and make the point that the Republican Party is the grassroots. It's not the elected officials. So, you know, Trump is going to play the outlier card, which he used in 2016, all over again. It's hard to play that card when you're the president, right?

You know, you've got to work with the Senate. You've got to work with the Congress. You are in Washington, but he's not anymore. So he can sort of play it-- play it loose and go after the people that he would have had to work with. And, you know, there are some people on the other side the GOP war that are willing to really fight against him, like Liz Cheney. But it's-- and Mitt Romney, was also disinvited from CPAC.

But it's hard to find others that will stand-- that will really stand up to him definitively. Like Mitch McConnell won't. Nikki Haley-- I reported in "Politico" last week that after, you know, condemning Trump very forcefully for January 6, that she asked to meet with him at Mar-a-Lago. And he said no.

And that, you know, is going to be the story we keep seeing from Republicans who kind of chose their conscience, right? Nikki Haley also wants to run for president in 2024. That's a pretty open secret in Washington. But can she do it without Trump? I mean, I mentioned to someone-- an organizer here at CPAC, you know, why isn't Nikki Haley here? And they were like, she probably would have been booed. Trump's--

ANNE-MARIE GREEN: Wow.

TARA PALMERI: Trump's supporters, which is a huge part of the Republican Party, you know, they remember those things.

VLADIMIR DUTHIERS: Are they-- so, Tara-- the question--

TARA PALMERI: That's why his endorsement goes so far.

VLADIMIR DUTHIERS: Yeah, so then the question really becomes, Tara, why play games? Why not just have people admit that it's not about policies? It's not about conservative values. You know, there may be some policies that they appreciate that President Trump sort of supported and maybe in some cases implemented, but really it's the cult of personality. They like the man. They think that he can do no wrong, and whatever he does, they're supportive of it. It doesn't matter if it ranges from alleged crimes to, you know, the allegations around the insurrection.

As opposed to making it about conservative values, as opposed to making it about conservative policies, like the deficit, or a strong military, or America's--

TARA PALMERI: Well, that-- it's really hard for them to--

VLADIMIR DUTHIERS: Right.

TARA PALMERI: It's almost impossible for them to stand by those same policies that they've always stood by. The deficit-- you know, President Trump supported. And, you know, congressional Republicans and Senate Republicans supported trillions of dollars in stimulus during COVID. Tax-- the tax cuts bill, that also added to the deficit. The deficit's not a talking point they really want to be talking about much anymore, right? I mean, you don't hear much-- you don't hear many talks about that.

Anti-military-- I mean, Trump-- yeah, he-- he kind of went both ways, sort of with, like, a tinge of ire at the military establishment, but also supporting them because he realized it's his voters. He wanted to pull out of the wars in the Middle East. You know, it's just-- like, it's really-- he's changed-- he's changed the party. You know, he appeals to evangelicals, but he's not an evangelical himself.

VLADIMIR DUTHIERS: Right.

TARA PALMERI: It's sort of like he can give them enough. The party has changed with Trump. You're not going to hear the same talking points anymore. But here's the real problem. People like Mitch McConnell, people like Kevin McCarthy, it's on them to make sure that they're raising money, a lot of it from corporates that don't like the things that are coming out of Trump's mouth, right?

And that money is the money that's used by their members to buy ads in local markets, to run campaigns. And they don't like what Trump is saying. So how do you raise money with Trump, right? Although Trump also said he raises money from the grassroots, which is true. He has an insane donor list. And it's up to him if he wants to use that to help members in the House and Senate. Again, they're going to have to take a loyalty-- the loyalty oath to him.

There's also the issue of winning over moderate voters. A lot of suburban women who did not vote for Trump, who had abandoned a lot of Republicans because of their loyalty to him, you can't win generals, really, without them. Now, they go both ways. We know that. They're swing voters. But, you know, Trump isn't someone that they have this strong affinity for the way that the grassroots does.

So while Trump may-- you know, may help you win a primary, it might not help you in the general against an actual Democrat. So the leaders are thinking more the long game, right? I do wonder more instances like Georgia happen over and over again, how can the Republican Party survive, if it just keeps losing seats because, you know, the candidates can't actually win in a primary?

I mean, I really do think this whole idea of voter fraud and the election being stolen did not drive out votes in Georgia. How are you supposed to get people to the polls if they don't think that their vote counts? Who's going to wait for hours to cast a ballot? And actually, early voting is what helped Trump win Florida. And that was one of the things that he said contributed to voter fraud, mail-in ballots, all of that.

So it's like-- it's just-- it's a catchy-- it's a catchy line. It's a way to explain the loss. But people aren't thinking about the long-term repercussions, what these-- what these talking points mean and how they actually resonate with voters and actually how they're going to influence the behavior of the people they need to go out and vote.

VLADIMIR DUTHIERS: That's an excellent point. You often hear from Trump supporters--

ANNE-MARIE GREEN: Mm-hm.

VLADIMIR DUTHIERS: --you know, the ones that I've spoken to, the ones that I know in my own personal life, you know, well, he's not perfect. He doesn't say things perfectly, and that's what we like about him. But that standard is not applied to anybody else. If one person who they don't like or they disagree with politically says something-- you know, a slip of the tongue or whatever it is, it's game over.

So-- so this cult of personality is, I think, kind of interesting. And when you factor in to the game of play that you've had, as you pointed out, Tara, folks like Nikki Haley or Mitch McConnell coming out very forcefully and criticizing the president of the United States when the time is politically right for them to do so, but seeming-- seeing that they're not invited to CPAC, for example, all these statements of support for former President Trump, it's sort of very telling.

Tara, always great to have you. It's been a while. Thanks for joining us.

TARA PALMERI: Yeah, thanks for having me. It's great to talk to you guys.