ORLANDO, Fla. – Donald Trump reentered political life Sunday by attacking President Joe Biden, condemning Republican opponents, and proclaiming himself the leader of a GOP riven by election defeats and last month's pro-Trump insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.
"Do you miss me yet?" Trump told a conference of conservative activists, after taking the stage more than an hour after his scheduled start time. "A lot of things going on."
Trump's attacks on other Republicans – and his support of primary challengers to some GOP lawmakers – threaten to divide the party further as it tries to regain control of Congress in 2022 and the White House in 2024.
Ahead of the speech, other Republicans said the party can only win elections in 2022 and 2024 by asking voters to agree with them on issues, not on Trump. Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., told CNN's "State of the Union" that the GOP cannot win if they put one man on "a pedestal."
If "we can speak to those policies, to those families, then we will win," said Cassidy, one of the seven Republican senators who voted to convict Trump on charges of inciting the Jan. 6 insurrection. "But if we idolize one person, we will lose."
Trump did not declare a 2024 presidential candidacy in his address to the Conservative Political Action Conference – but did hint at a run while alluding to his false claims of Democratic vote fixing in 2020.
"Who knows? I may even decide to beat them for a third time," Trump said to cheers from the CPAC crowd.
Trump also mentioned plans to inject himself into the 2022 congressional elections, backing Republicans who subscribe to his "Make America Great Again" agenda.
The former president declared he would remain a member of the GOP, denying reports that he is thinking about starting a new political party. He told fellow Republicans that he will "continue to fight right by your side."
Mocking Trump's claim that he could beat the Democrats "again," Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., tweeted that "Trump lost the election FYI."
Kinzinger, one of the ten House Republicans who voted to impeach Trump over the insurrection, added a "side note" that "this speech is boring. We can’t win the presidency with this boring, low energy, stream of conscience, weak, has been, choke artist."
Although he only left office Jan. 20, Trump also began bashing his still-new successor, Biden, claiming he has had "the most disastrous first month of any president in modern history." Trump called on Biden to support reopening schools, despite the pandemic, and stand up to China and its trade practices.
Democrats and Biden officials said they are cleaning up the mess left behind by Trump, from his COVID-19 response and too-restrictive immigration measures to frayed relations with international allies.
White House officials have said neither they nor Biden plan to comment much on Trump's speech because they expect to be busy working.
"I wouldn’t say he's thought a lot about the former president’s visit – I was going to say 'performance,' maybe that’s appropriate – at CPAC," said White House press secretary Jen Psaki.
Democratic strategist Jesse Ferguson said it's been a year since Trump downplayed the then-imminent threat of COVID-19. "After all the GOP's failures to combat it, and over 500,000 killed, Trump will demand this crowd – his most loyal subjects – praise him for it," Ferguson said.
Trump's maiden speech of his post-presidency was expected to be a long one. Trump, who spoke frequently at CPAC before and after his presidency, talked for two hours during his appearance in 2019.
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The ex-president also plans to attack Republicans who expressed support for his impeachment, or refused to help him with efforts to overturn his election loss to Biden.
Some of those Republicans are urging the party to move past Trump, citing his role in the insurrection and calling him a divisive leader who would drag down the party to more defeats.
"I don't believe that he should be playing a role in the future of the party, or the country," said Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., one of ten House Republicans who voted to impeach Trump over the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.
Beyond occasional written statements and brief phone-in interviews on cable television, Trump has laid low since leaving office, especially during this month's Senate impeachment trial.
The Senate acquitted Trump on charges he incited the riot, but only because prosecutors could not muster the two-thirds vote needed for conviction. As it was, 57 of the 100 senators voted for Trump's conviction, including seven Republicans – more possible targets of Trump's CPAC speech.
The ex-president found a friendly crowd. Speaker after speaker has lauded Trump since CPAC opened on Thursday night. Many delegates have lined up to take pictures beside a golden statue of Trump, which is decked out in coat-and-tie, beach shorts, flip-flops, and carrying a magic wand.
His speech turned CPAC into something of a Trump political rally, with delegates cheering, standing, and wearing Trump-themed hats, t-shirts, and pins.
In a straw poll conducted during the conference, 55% of CPAC delegates said they want Trump to be the Republican nominee in 2024. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who probably had a home state advantage at the conference in Orlando, finished second with 21%, with other possible GOP candidates in single digits.
Several CPAC attendees questioned whether Trump will or should run. A little more than two-thirds of the delegates, 68%, said the ex-president should run again in three years, while 32% said he should not, or had no opinion on the subject.
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Shortly before Trump's speech, one CPAC speaker – Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio – told the crowd he was "the leader of the conservative movement” and “the leader of the Republican Party." Delegates gave those lines a standing ovation.
The expected attacks on Biden are unique in the modern era. Other ex-presidents have criticized their successors, but none have done it as early in the new president's first term as Trump.
Rather than fade from the political scene, as have many previous ex-presidents, Trump plans to stay in the spotlight, for better or for worse as far as the Republicans are concerned.
Trump and his allies are even planning to get involved in Republican primaries next month. They have vowed to back primary challengers to Republicans he views as disloyal, particularly the ten House Republicans who voted for impeachment.
On Friday, Trump endorsed former White House aide Max Miller in his challenge to Rep. Anthony Gonzalez, R-Ohio, an impeachment supporter.
Denver Riggleman, a former Republican congressman from Virginia who now opposes Trump, said the former president will probably wait to see "how his mini-Trumps" fare in 2022 before deciding whether he will run again in 2024.
In the meantime, Riggleman said, Trump will aggressively attack critics while building a "cult of personality" within a Republican Party on the brink of civil war.
"You've got people who are loyal to Trump against people who are loyal to the Constitution," Riggleman said.
Some Democrats welcome Trump's return to politics. Jaime Harrison, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, described Trump's reemergence as a gift to the Democrats, helping them raise money and defeat GOP election opponents in 2022 and 2024.
"Oh, he's a hot messy gift," Harrison told MSNBC.
Others said Trump's speech will reinforce his continuing domination of the Republican Party. Joe Walsh, a former GOP congressman said now a conservative critic of Trump, said, "it's his party, and he knows it."
"We all underestimate his hold on the party," Walsh said. "The next four years are his, to do whatever he wants."