Hamilton Journal News

Trump calls for GOP unity, says he won’t start another party

- By Jill Colvin

ORLANDO, FLA. — Taking the stage for the first time since leaving office, former President Donald Trump on Sunday called for Republican Party unity in a speech at a conservati­ve political conference, even as he exacerbate­d its divisions and made clear he intended to remain a dominant force in the party.

Trump used his speech at the Conservati­ve Political Action Conference, where he has been hailed as a returning hero, to blast his successor, President Joe Biden, and try to cement his status as the party’s undisputed leader despite his loss in November.

“Do you miss me yet?” Trump said after taking the stage, where his old rally soundtrack had been playing. “I stand before you today to declare that the incredible journey we begun together ... is far from being over.”

Though Trump has flirted with the idea of creating a third party, he pledged to remain part of what he called “our beloved party.”

“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.”

It is highly unusual for past American presidents to publicly criticize their successors so soon after leaving office. Ex-presidents typically step out of the spotlight for at least a while; Barack Obama was famously seen kitesurfin­g on vacation after he departed, while George W. Bush said he believed Obama “deserves my silence” and took up painting.

Trump, on the other hand, delivered a sharp rebuke of what he framed as the new administra­tion’s first month of failures, including Biden’s

Former president Donald Trump speaks at the Conservati­ve Political Action Conference (CPAC) on Sunday in Orlando, Fla.

approach to immigratio­n and the border.

“Joe Biden has had the most disastrous first month of any president in modern history,” Trump said.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki brushed off the expected criticism. “We’ll see what he says, but our focus is certainly not on what President Trump is saying at CPAC,” she told reporters.

The conference, held this year in Orlando instead of the Washington suburbs because of COVID-19 restrictio­ns, has been a tribute to Trump and Trumpism, complete with a golden statue in his likeness. Speakers, including many potential 2024 hopefuls, have argued the party must embrace the former president and his followers, even after the deadly insurrecti­on at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. And they have repeated his unfounded claims that he lost the November election only because the election was “rigged” — claims that have been rejected by judges, Republican state officials

and Trump’s own administra­tion.

The conference’s annual unscientif­ic straw poll of just over 1,000 attendees found that 97% approve of the job Trump did as president. But they were much more ambiguous about whether he should run again, with 68% saying he should.

If the 2024 primary were held today and Trump were in the race, just 55% said they would vote for him, followed by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis at 21%. Without Trump in the field, DeSantis garnered 43% support, followed by 8% for South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem and 7% each for former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz.

Aside from criticizin­g Biden, Trump used the speech to claim himself as the future of the Republican Party, even as many leaders argued they must move in a new, less divisive direction after Republican­s lost not only the White House but both chambers of Congress in the last elections.

Trump insisted the party was united, even as he has sought to punish those who voted to impeach him for inciting the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol.

Indeed, on Friday, Trump endorsed Max Miller, a former aide who is seeking to oust Ohio Rep. Anthony Gonzalez, who voted in favor of Trump’s impeachmen­t.

While he no longer has his social media megaphone after being barred from Twitter and Facebook, Trump has already been inching back into public life.

At his Mar-a-Lago club in Palm Beach, Florida, Trump has been quietly meeting with aides and senior party leaders as he builds his post-presidenti­al political operation. While he has already endorsed several pro-Trump candidates, aides have been working to develop benchmarks for those seeking his endorsemen­t to make sure the candidates are serious and have set up fullfledge­d political and fundraisin­g organizati­ons before he gets involved.

 ?? JOHN RAOUX / AP ??

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