Donald Trump had a rough week. His former lawyer told a House committee that the president is a cheat and a racist who has committed fraud, hours before Trump returned empty-handed from a high-stakes summit with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un in Hanoi.
Yet just down the Potomac River from Washington, at an annual gathering of influential conservatives, none of that mattered.
On stage and in meeting rooms of a convention center at National Harbor, Maryland, attendees alike donned bright red “MAGA” hats as speakers praised the president lavishly as the savior of the nation.
“I see the greatest president in history,” Mike Lindell, an avid Trump supporter and the chief executive officer of My Pillow Inc., said as he addressed a Thursday session of the Conservative Political Action Conference. “Of course he is, he was chosen by God.”
The split-screen scenes from the nation’s capital capture Trump’s predicament as he begins turning to a re-election race. His approval ratings remain stuck underwater nationally and he faces an onslaught of investigations by Special Counsel Robert Mueller and congressional Democrats. But he holds an unassailable grip on a Republican Party that’s increasingly welcoming of the far right.
Trump arrived to a hero’s welcome on Saturday at CPAC, where eight years ago he was booed. His critics in the conservative movement have either become supporters or been largely excommunicated from the gathering.
“The men and women here today are on the front lines of protecting America’s interests, defends America’s value and reclaiming our nation’s priceless heritage,” Trump told the crowd, after predicting a bigger victory in 2020 than he achieved in 2016. “With your help, we are reversing decades of blunders and betrayals. These are serious betrayal to our nation.”
Chants of “Trump! Trump! Trump! Trump!” filled the arena as the president accused his predecessors of enriching foreign countries at America’s expense. Calls for “Four more years” rang out as Trump ran through many of his well-worn applause lines.
Ronna McDaniel, chairwoman of the Republican National Committee, used the occasion to praise figures with views that once were relegated to the fringes, but who have since been assimilated into the party mainstream.
“You see people like Candace Owens like Charlie Kirk — we need more leaders like that,” McDaniel said at the conference. “These rising stars are the future of the party.”
Owens recently drew a backlash for saying that “if Hitler just wanted to make Germany great and have things run well, O.K. fine,” and that his problem was “he had dreams outside of Germany.”
Kirk is a culture warrior who has accused liberals of endorsing infanticide. Both landed speaking slots at CPAC, along with activist-provocateur James O’Keefe and YouTube duo Diamond and Silk, while conspiracy theorist Jacob Wohl walked the halls.
Trump skeptics in the conservative movement were aghast. “Then the Party doesn’t deserve to have a future,” Joe Walsh, a former Republican congressman turned radio host responded on Twitter.
“Some future. Some party,” tweeted Bill Kristol, a conservative writer and longtime Republican operative. Commentator and radio host Erick Erickson ridiculed the lineup.
In some ways, Erickson embodies the party’s dichotomy — once a leader of the “Never Trump” movement, he endorsed Trump for re-election last month, saying he still struggles with the president’s moral failings but likes his policies.
CPAC kicked off as Michael Cohen, Trump’s former lawyer and fixer, testified in public and private at the Capitol, providing a road map of witnesses -- Trump associates and employees -- that he said could corroborate his assertions that Trump engaged in various acts of crime and fraud.
In the extraordinary Wednesday hearing at the House Oversight Committee, Cohen, who worked for Trump for a decade and was the RNC’s deputy finance chairman until eight months ago, told Congress he lied on the president’s behalf to cover up his misdeeds. He pleaded guilty to nine felonies, including lying to Congress, and has been sentenced to three years in prison.
McDaniel, like many of the president’s allies, dismissed Cohen’s allegations and labeled him a liar.
CPAC has long been a blend of mainstream and fringe figures, and this year’s event attracted numerous Republican elected officials as speakers, including Senators David Perdue of Georgia, Joni Ernst of Iowa, and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. All are running for re-election in 2020 and are banking on votes of Trump supporters.
Graham, a former critic turned ally, offered a joke that illustrated how some of Trump’s foibles are both acknowledged and dismissed by his supporters.
“We have a lot in common,” he said of the president. “I like him and he likes him.”
Vice President Mike Pence spoke on Friday, singing the president’s praises and drawing a standing ovation when he defended Trump’s national emergency declaration to bypass Congress and construct a border wall. His speech was packed with attacks on “socialism” and the Democratic Party’s left turn.
Other Trump administration officials like trade policy director Peter Navarro and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross also addressed the conference.
Some speakers focused on the core of Trump’s appeal to right-leaning voters: his promises to build a border wall to keep out unauthorized migrants and to curtail legal immigration.
Right-wing commentator and author Michelle Malkin cast blame on current and former Republican leaders for failing to limit immigration, saying that it has led to an “invasion” of the U.S. by “militantly unassimilable and hostile generations” who threaten “American sovereignty.”
“Yes, I’m looking at you, retired Paul Ryan. And yes, I’m looking at you, Mitch McConnell. And yes I’m looking at you, Bush family. And yes, I’m looking at you, the ghost of John McCain,” she said on Friday, drawing applause from the crowd.
Recent surveys by Reuters/Ipsos and Politico/Morning Consult each placed Trump’s job approval rating with self-identified Republicans at 82 percent, roughly double his rating among the public at large.
GOP chairwoman McDaniel dared Trump skeptics in the party, like former Ohio Governor John Kasich, to challenge him for the 2020 nomination.
“They will lose horribly,” said McDaniel, the niece of Utah senator, former presidential candidate and sometimes Trump critic Mitt Romney, adding that Trump’s record on the economy and appointing conservative Supreme Court justices make him unbeatable.
“What would any Republican be thinking, saying this is a guy I’m going to run against? So have at it, go ahead,” she said, ”waste your money, waste your time and go ahead and lose.”
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