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Former President Trump on Sunday gave his first public speech since he left office and was acquitted in his second Senate impeachment trial. CBS News political reporter Adam Brewster, CBSN political contributor and Democratic strategist Antjuan Seawright and Maggie's List spokeswoman Lauren Zelt join CBSN's Lana Zak to discuss the former president's speech.
LANA ZAK: Former President Trump held court with some of his most ardent supporters Sunday. It was his first major speech since leaving the White House. At this year's Conservative Political Action Conference, CPAC, in Orlando, Florida, Mr. Trump pledged to keep fighting to make America great again. He mocked recent COVID health guidelines, like double masking, and criticized President Biden's first month in office. Mr. Trump also repeated his false claims that he won the 2020 election and even teased a potential 2024 run for the White House.
DONALD TRUMP: Joe Biden has had the most disastrous first month of any president in modern history. Already the Biden administration has proven that they are anti-jobs, anti-family, anti-borders, anti-energy, anti-women, and anti-science.
Actually, as you know, they just lost the White House, but it's one of those things. But who knows? Who knows? I may even decide to beat them for a third time.
LANA ZAK: Before he took the stage, officials announced the results of a pair of CPAC's 2024 presidential polls. Mr. Trump won the poll that included him in the field of candidates by 55%. The survey of guests helps to gauge where the conservative base stands with potential Republican candidates. Other special guest speakers included executive vice president of the National Rifle Association, Wayne LaPierre, and Ohio Congressman Jim Jordan.
For more on all of this, let's bring in Adam Brewster, Antjuan Seawright, and Lauren Zelt. Adam is a CBS News political reporter. Antjuan is a CBS News political contributor and Democratic strategist. And Lauren is the spokeswoman for Maggie's List, a federal political action committee that works to help elect conservative women to federal public office. She's also a former aide to former Republican presidential candidate Utah Senator Mitt Romney.
Welcome to all three of you. Adam, I'm going to start with you. What were the main takeaways from former President Trump's speech this evening? And did he stick to the script?
ADAM BREWSTER: He did seem to be speaking a lot off of some type of prepared remarks. You know, during the rallies leading up to the campaigns, we'd see the president weave on and off of prepared remarks. But there did seem to be, you know, at least sticking to the script, you know, at some points compared to some of the notes we'd received earlier in the day about what he might say. And as far as some of the things he touched on, you know, he really went after the Biden administration's first month. He especially criticized the immigration policies. Of course, that was one of his signature issues, something he talked about, you know, from the minute he announced that he was running for president back in 2015.
He also talked about how he doesn't want to start a third party. There have been reports back in January that the former president was considering starting a third party to challenge the Republicans. And he basically shot that down today and said, we're not going to do that. Why would we do that? It's just going to divide Republicans and we'd lose every election. It doesn't seem like a very smart idea to me.
And he talked a bit about, you know, what he wants the Republican Party to be going forward and bringing in some of his policies and adopting his views and some of the things that he thought the party was successful on in the 2020 election in, you know, more success that they saw with minority candidates, for example, and the strength of the working class base that's within the Republican Party and wanting to see that continue on.
LANA ZAK: So, Lauren, I want to bring you into this conversation. Because it was very clear that President Trump when he was saying I'm not creating a third party, that he has control over the Republican Party. But all Republicans were not welcome at this year's CPAC. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and your former boss, Utah Senator Mitt Romney, were not invited this year. Why are they being excluded? And do you think the Republicans are making a mistake by failing to create a broader coalition that includes Republicans who may not be Trump loyalists?
LAUREN ZELT: It's certainly not a secret that there is a large divide in the Republican Party today. We have the pro-Trump Republicans and then you pretty much have everybody else. I do think that the headline coming out of CPAC over the weekend that the president is not going to start a third party is significant. Because he knows a third party would not succeed. But, candidly, with Donald Trump at the head of the Republican Party, I don't feel that there's really any chance, if he is the nominee in 2024, for Republicans to take back the White House.
What we saw this fall is still true. Suburban Republican voters are turned off by the former president. And they don't wish to see him in office again. They are willing to support other candidates. And what's interesting is this year, we had the largest GOP freshman class in Congress ever-- freshman female class in Congress ever. And so they are supporting other Republican candidates, But, not necessarily the president. So that is a very significant headline to come out of CPAC over the weekend.
LANA ZAK: Antjuan, the top priority of Republicans right now is to take control of the House in 2022. We heard the former president stress border control and school openings as issues that Republicans may use to try and overtake Democrats' slim majority. What are Democrats going to do to try and fend off this challenge from Republicans?
ANTJUAN SEAWRIGHT: Well, if there's one thing we know as Democrats it's that the former president thrives off of frustration, anger, confusion, and lies. He has zero interest in having a relationship with the truth. And the crowd who shows up at CPAC under this idea that Trump is the leader of the Republican Party, they simply are hungry and thirsty for the red meat right wing rhetoric that comes from Trump. We saw flirtations with appetizers from those who spoke before Trump. And Trump came in to delivered the meal.
What Democrats have to be careful about thinking that this is in some sort of bubble and they'd only connect with the crowd that shows up at CPAC. Truth be told, there are people who did not show up at that conference who are digesting this information, truth or not, the same way those who are there. And so we have to be in our own space and pushing back on it the best way that we know how, but also calling things out that are not true.
But there's a flip side to that, Lana. There are Republican voters who have no interest in associating themselves with the Donald Trump rhetoric we heard at CPAC. And so what I think Democrats are going to have to do is we're going to have to block and tackle the old-fashioned way, block out this idea that Trump is going to be a distraction and really tackle the issues that we promised in the 2020 election so when we go back to these voters, even those Republicans who voted for Democrats, we have proof that we followed up on the things we said we were going to do. And while Republicans were doing their thing at CPAC, you had House Democrats delivering what I would call the American survival plan to American families who are desperately in need with the package, the American Rescue package that received bipartisan support all over the country.
LANA ZAK: Adam, what about Antjuan point here? As we mentioned, the results of CPAC straw polls were announced this afternoon. And unsurprisingly, President Trump won. But I wonder if you were surprised that while 95% of CPAC attendees say they wanted the GOP to continue to pursue the policies of the Trump administration, a smaller number, 68%, said that they actually wanted Mr. Trump to run again.
ADAM BREWSTER: Well, I think that there are people, you know, who might see other candidates who can embody some of the ideals and principles and policies that President Trump has pushed. Now what's not clear is whether those people can draw upon the enthusiasm Mr. Trump gets for a lot of people. When you talk to a lot of Trump supporters, one of the first things they say about why they like him is he's not a politician, he's a businessman, and that sort of deal. And some of these other potential candidates, whether it be Josh Hawley or Ted Cruz, they are politicians. And that is how people see them.
So it remains to be seen whether they can capture that sort of enthusiasm that President Trump generated among his supporters. But I do think that polling we've seen-- and not just the straw poll at CPAC among the conservative base-- but polling from CBS News and other organizations have shown that a large number of Republicans still like President Trump and want to see him have a strong future in the party.
LANA ZAK: So, Lauren, this event is traditionally seen as a launching pad for Republican political careers. And Florida Governor Ron DeSantis came in second to Mr. Trump. It was also held in Florida, we should probably add. But what does this mean for his future? And did you see any other emerging GOP stars?
LAUREN ZELT: I think there are a fair amount of emerging GOP stars at this event, some of which actually weren't on the main stage. You have people like first term Congresswoman Kat Cammack from Florida. She is the youngest member-- or the youngest female member of Congress right now. She participated in a panel I believe yesterday.
And then you also have people like Byron Donalds who also spoke yesterday as well. And he is one of three African-American Republicans in Congress right now. So even though they may not be gathering the largest headlines, we are seeing some names come out of CPAC, certainly.
The other thing I'd like to point out-- you know, you mentioned that my former boss, Mitt Romney and Leader McConnell, or former Leader McConnell were not there. I think Nikki Haley is somebody who is well positioned to attract some of the Trump base and also the more suburban Republican voters moving forward. And she was not present at CPAC.
LANA ZAK: Yeah, we have seen her sort of straddling that line very effectively. Only have a couple of seconds left, Antjuan, but I want to get one more question in to you. President Trump lost the 2020 election. But we heard him hint that he may be interested in running again. Do Democrats rather have a rematch of the 2020 election with Mr. Trump at the top of the Republican ticket or would you rather have somebody else up there?
ANTJUAN SEAWRIGHT: I think Democrats have to focus on the focus and prioritize the priority. That means focusing on our job. Look, we have learned from elections in the past, things do not work well when we focus on Donald Trump or what Republicans have going on. We have to stay focused on delivering on our priorities and the things we promised on our agenda.
And we cannot make the mistake or not be clear eyed about the fact that Republicans fall in line and Democrats fall in love. Regardless of who the nominee is, they're going to rally behind that person. Make no mistake about it.
LANA ZAK: All right, Adam Brewster, Antjuan Seawright, Lauren Zelt, thank you all.