ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — Taking the stage for the first time since leaving office, former President Donald Trump on Sunday called for GOP unity, even as he exacerbated intraparty divisions by attacking fellow Republicans.
Speaking at the Conservative Political Action Conference, where he has been hailed as a returning hero, Trump blasted his successor, President Joe Biden, and tried to lay out a vision for the future of the GOP that revolves firmly around him, despite his loss in November.
“Do you miss me yet?” Trump said after taking the stage to his old rally soundtrack and cheers from the supportive crowd.
Trump, in his speech, tried to downplay the civil war gripping the party over the extent to which Republicans should embrace him, even as he unfurled an enemies list, calling out by name the 10 House Republicans and seven GOP senators who voted to impeach or convict him for inciting the U.S. Capitol riot.
He ended by singling out Rep. Liz Cheney, the No. 3 House Republican, who has faced tremendous backlash in Wyoming for saying Trump should no longer play a role in the party or headline the event.
While he insisted the division was merely a spat “between a handful of Washington, D.C., establishment political hacks and everybody else, all over the country,” Trump had a message for the incumbents who had dared to cross him: “Get rid of ’em all.”
The conference, held this year in Orlando instead of the Washington suburbs to evade COVID-19 restrictions, served as a tribute to Trump and Trumpism, complete with a golden statue in his likeness on display. Speakers, including many potential 2024 hopefuls, argued that the party must embrace the former president and his followers, even after the deadly insurrection at the Capitol on Jan. 6.
They also repeated in panel after panel his unfounded claims that he lost reelection only because of mass voter fraud.
Trump, too, continued to repeat what Democrats have dubbed the “big lie,” calling the election “rigged” and insisting that he won in November, even though he lost by more than 7 million votes.
Trump delivered a sharp rebuke of what he framed as the new administration’s first month of failures, especially Biden’s approach to immigration and the border.
“Joe Biden has had the most disastrous first month of any president in modern history,” Trump said.
Aside from criticizing Biden, Trump used the speech to crown himself the future of the Republican Party, even as many leaders argue they must move in a new, less divisive direction after Republicans lost not just the White House, but both chambers of Congress.
Though Trump has flirted with the the idea of creating a third party, he pledged Sunday to remain part of “our beloved” GOP.
“I’m going to continue to fight right by your side. We’re not starting new parties,” he said. “We have the Republican Party. It’s going to be strong and united like never before.” Yet Trump spent much of the speech lashing out at those he has deemed insufficiently loyal and dubbed “RINOs” — Republican in name only — for failing to stand with him.
“We cannot have leaders who show more passion for condemning their fellow Americans than they have ever shown for standing up to Democrats, the media and the radicals who want to turn America into a socialist country,” Trump said.
Trump did not use his speech to announce plans to run again, but he repeatedly teased the prospect as he predicted a Republican would win back the White House in 2024.
“And I wonder who that will be,” he offered. “Who, who, who will that be? I wonder.”
“I stand before you today to declare that the incredible journey we begun together … is far from being over,” he said.