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NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — It was a difficult week for President Trump, with former lawyer Michael Cohen calling the president a liar and racist in congressional testimony and a high-profile summit in Vietnam with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un ending early with no agreement. And so, on Saturday afternoon, Trump traveled to the Conservative Political Action Conference, held at a hotel and convention hall just south of Washington, where he basked in the warmth and adulation of a wholly uncritical crowd.
The president spoke for a little more than two hours, sometimes extemporaneously. It was the longest speech he has given as president.
Upon taking the stage, 45 minutes after his scheduled start time of 11:30 a.m., Trump hugged the American flag in what appeared to be a glad-to-be-home gesture. He launched into a rambling, raucous speech that veered from trade policies in the 1880s to the presidency of William McKinley to his friendship with developer Richard LeFrak — who, he said, insists on calling him “Mr. President” despite being invited to address him as “Donald” — to television recording device TiVo, which Trump called “one of the great inventions in history.”
In what likely is a preview of his upcoming reelection campaign, Trump made the case that he was well on his way to achieving his campaign promises, including turbo-charging the American economy and fixing the nation’s immigration system. And he would finish the work, he maintained, unless voters succumbed to the progressive policies now being pitched by Democrats, both young House members like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the Democratic candidates for president, who have, on the whole, endorsed an agenda considerably to the left of the last Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton — or, as Trump called her during the speech, “Crooked Hillary.”
That agenda was doomed, Trump said, adding, in a reprise of an attack line he has used several times recently, “America will never be a socialist country.” It was met approvingly by the CPAC crowd, which remained enthusiastic until the very end of the speech, when people could be seen making their way toward the doors.
Amid frequent name-checks for conservative radio host Mark Levin and Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C, who was one of his most strident defenders at the House Oversight hearing that featured Cohen, launched attacks on the Green New Deal, Ocasio-Cortez’s plan to wean the American economy off fossil fuels. The plan would “completely destroy the American economy,” Trump said. “It would end air travel,” he added, wondering how people would reach destinations like Europe and Hawaii. And the former real estate developer lamented that “New York City would have to rip down buildings and rebuild them again,” an apparent reference to retrofitting for energy efficiency.
“I want them to embrace this plan,” Trump said of potential 2020 challengers, boasting about how easy it would be to run against. Some establishment Democrats fear exactly the same thing.
Trump gleefully went off script on a number of occasions. “I was in the White House, and I was lonely,” he said at one point. “And I said, ‘Let’s go to Iraq.’” He then told a lengthy story about Air Force One landing near Baghdad in the darkness and about meeting Air Force Brigadier Gen. J. Daniel Caine, whose nickname — “Raisin” Caine — the president found particularly amusing.
Lamenting that, despite spending “$7 trillion” on Middle East security, it still wasn’t safe for his airplane to land with its cabin lights on, Trump went on to boast that under his administration, the Islamic State was being systematically defeated. “It should be formally announced some time, probably next week, that we will have 100 percent of the caliphate,” Trump said.
Trump took the opportunity to criticize Gen. James Mattis, who left his post as secretary of defense last December because he disagreed with the president’s approach to Syria. “It wasn’t working too well,” he said of Mattis’s tenure, though it was under his leadership that the Islamic State was largely beaten back.
Mattis wasn’t the only current, or former, administration member to come in for criticism from the president. He mocked the Southern accent of former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who infuriated Trump by recusing himself from the investigation into potential collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia. He also criticized, without naming him, Federal Reserve chairman Jerome Powell: “We have a gentleman who likes raising interest rates in the Fed,” a charge he has made several times in recent months.
There were plenty of attacks on the media, with Trump singling out Washington Post reporter Dave Weigel, who in late 2017 had to apologize for a tweet that misrepresented the size of a crowd at a campaign rally. The president also gave an extended reprise of the controversy over the size of the crowd at his Inauguration more than two years ago, including the fact that the people who did turn out to see him did so in spite of the fact that it was raining, and the women in the crowd had to walk long distances “in high heels.”
On the whole, the speech was a deft review of the issues that animate the base of the Republican Party. At one point, he brought on stage Hayden Williams, a conservative activist who had recently been assaulted on the campus of the University of California at Berkeley, a favorite target of the right. Trump said he hoped that Williams would grow rich from lawsuits he is expected to file. Trump also said that he would soon be signing an executive order regarding the protection of free speech on college campuses.
Harsh rhetoric on immigration was in order. Trump was unapologetic about having declared a state of emergency in order to seek greater funding for his proposed border barrier. He described the people crossing into the United States from Mexico as “murderers, killers, drug dealers, human traffickers.” He cited a figure about crimes committed by undocumented immigrants from the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which is classified as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, a not-for-profit group that studies extremism.
The president also stoked fears of gun control, asserting that the Second Amendment was “under siege.” But, he assured the audience, “I’ll protect you. I promise.”
And he hit on a theme that has been popular during the five-day gathering of conservatives, denouncing expanded abortion rights measures in New York and Virginia. “They will execute the baby after birth,” Trump said of the Virginia measure.
The two-hour mark passed, and Trump was still talking, now explaining what went wrong at his summit in Hanoi. “I had to walk because sometimes you gotta walk,” he said. He also took pains to explain his widely criticized remarks about the death of Otto Warmbier — “our beautiful, beautiful Otto” — the Ohio college student who was arrested in North Korea, fell into a coma while imprisoned and died soon after he was returned to the U.S. Before leaving Vietnam, Trump said Kim had assured him he hadn’t been involved in whatever befell Warmbier, “and I take him at his word,” a remark that outraged, among others, Warmbier’s parents. At CPAC, the president appealed for sympathy for his dilemma, having to praise Kim as a friend and good-faith negotiator without alienating people who were outraged by Warmbier’s death. “I’m in such a horrible position,” he said.
It was around this time that members of the audience began to walk toward the doors of the ballroom. Some lingered there, while others left. “Not one person has left,” Trump announced, “and I’ve been up here for a long time.” Only half of that statement was true.
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