Former President Trump‘s reentry into public life at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) on Sunday exacerbates challenges for political leaders in both parties, as well as the media.
Washington has been a relatively Trump-free zone for the first 40 days of President Biden‘s administration, particularly with Trump banned from Twitter, the megaphone that allowed him to gin up news cycle after news cycle.
The speech to a faithful crowd in Orlando, Fla., won’t bring a return to the last four years, but it did establish that Trump remains the overwhelming leader of the Republican Party and that Republicans in Congress contending with the Biden administration will have to constantly be looking over their shoulder.
It also showed he can still command some media attention, though only Fox News carried his CPAC speech live among the major cable networks.
“It’s still Trump’s party,” said Dan Eberhart, a GOP fundraiser who has been critical of Trump’s post-election rhetoric.
“Whether it remains so is going to be played out live on TV for the next two years because the media is obsessed with the question,” he added.
Trump is expected to form a super PAC and be involved in party primaries. His speech essentially represented a threat to all the Republican lawmakers who voted to impeach him.
Trump’s victory in the CPAC straw poll notwithstanding, it’s unclear whether he will run for president again in 2024. But it is clear he wants the GOP to know it’s a possibility.
Trump’s remarks at CPAC resembled his old campaign rallies and included grievances, misleading statements and attacks on his critics, all delivered to a boisterous crowd.
He renewed his false claims that he won the 2020 presidential election, saying at one point he could run for a “third” term in 2024.
Such claims led to the Jan. 6 mob of Trump supporters that ransacked the Capitol, an event that led to five deaths, including a Capitol Police officer, and the former president’s second impeachment.
The divides over the ugly episode in U.S. history continue to eat at the Republican Party, even as it quickly and generally asserts itself under the former president.
The attack has led to new fears about the role misinformation is playing in American life and directly led social media networks to eject Trump, something he and other Republicans are now roundly criticizing.
Clinton Watts, a distinguished research fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, said that Trump’s lack of presence on social media platforms makes it much harder for false claims about his election loss and other conspiracies to take hold.
“They can’t be hammered into people’s heads because you’re just not seeing him enough and they’re not spreading fast enough,” Watts said. “The conspiracy audience doesn’t know where to go to see the conspiracy and even if they go there, he’s not saying anything.”
That said, CPAC featured a number of speakers who made false claims that the election was stolen from Trump, underscoring how such theories will continue to resurface.
The Biden White House has generally sought to ignore Trump, something that could be challenging if he seeks more attention and tries to make news.
“A central part of the challenge that Biden is going to face is that he needs to position himself at the center of national deliberations about lawmaking,” said William Howell, a professor at the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy. “But he needs to capture the narrative and set its terms.”
The Biden White House, by and large, has refused to engage on questions about Trump.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki declined to engage with a question about Trump’s claim that Biden had “sold out” to teachers unions during a briefing on Monday afternoon.
“I think we are going to spend more of our time focused on communicating about our agenda for the American people than responding to criticism from the former president,” Psaki said.
When asked about the impact of Trump’s continued presence on the U.S. relationship with foreign leaders, Psaki answered: “President Biden just decisively beat Donald Trump a few months ago, that’s why we’re all here,” before noting that Biden remains focused on fulfilling his commitments on the campaign trail.
Trump appears poised to remain a shadow in Washington, especially when it comes to the Republican Party. Though one third of those polled said they preferred that Trump not run again for the White House, he still won the straw poll handily.
At the convention, a golden statue of Trump was wheeled around the convention hall, and the event’s agenda reflected many of the former president’s priorities with a focus on election integrity, “cancel culture” and alleged anti-conservative bias in technology companies and the press.
“The CPAC crowd is fully on board the Trump train now. The results of the 2020 elections are not up for discussion — Trump won, and the election was stolen from him,” Eberhart said, noting that narrative made it more difficult for prospective 2024 candidates like Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) to find an opening.
Trump discussed plans for a potential super PAC during a meeting with several political allies at his Mar-a-Lago club in Palm Beach, Fla., on Thursday. Corey Lewandowski is expected to play a leading role in the endeavor, and several other former Trump campaign aides, White House officials and other allies are expected to be involved.
The super PAC would work in conjunction with Trump’s already-formed leadership PAC, Save America, which has been raking in millions of dollars since it launched last year. Through the political action committee, Trump has made endorsements for GOP candidates like former aide, Max Miller who is running against one of the Republicans who voted in favor of Trump’s impeachment earlier this year, Ohio Rep. Anthony Gonzalez.
While Trump ruled out forming a new political party during his speech on Sunday, Republicans say that his attacks on other GOP lawmakers are counterproductive and take energy away from more effective criticism of the Democrats’ agenda.
“If he left and started his own party, the Republican Party would lose. If he runs again it’s going to be challenging for him to win a national election based on the events that unfolded after Nov. 3,” veteran Republican strategist Colin Reed said. “It’s one less lingering issue out there, but as long as he’s taking pot shots at his perceived Republican enemies, that’s where the focus is going to be here in D.C.”