NATIONAL PORT, MD. – Donald Trump seemed to have Gov. Ron DeSantis in mind here Saturday night during his speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference.
Addressing an audience of devoted fans at the annual conservative rally, the former president called out Republicans who, in the past, favored cuts in entitlement programs.
“We will not go back to the people who want to destroy our great Social Security system,” Trump said in his speech. «Even some in our own party.»
Trump then sheepishly added: «I wonder who it could be.»
He never mentioned the governor of Florida by name. But DeSantis, a former member of Congress, recently made Headlines to withdraw from the past votes and comments in favor of raising the retirement age and privatizing Social Security and Medicare. The subtle Trump contrast comes as the two Republicans appear to be on a collision course in the 2024 Republican presidential primary. Polls have consistently shown DeSantis as Trump’s strongest potential competitor for the nomination.
Trump, in his nearly two-hour speech, also called on Republicans to renounce once and for all the George W. Bush-era conservatism that preceded his rise in politics, a rebuke to a Republican establishment he has pointed to interest in leaving Trump behind. .
Before he appeared, Trump argued, the party was run by «monsters» and «chumps.»
I am your warrior. I am your justice. And for those who have been wronged and betrayed, I am your retribution.
Former President Donald Trump
“We will never go back to the party of Paul Ryan, Karl Rove and Jeb Bush,” Trump said, singling out by name a former House speaker, architect of former President George W. Bush’s political career and Bush’s younger brother, who he lost to Trump in the 2016 primary.
Callbacks to the Bush family are reminiscent of 2016, when Trump emphasized the misintelligence that preceded then-President George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq and derided Jeb Bush’s candidacy as «low energy.» They also served as another thinly veiled arrow in DeSantis’s direction. Jeb Bush, himself a former governor of Florida, has praised DeSantis in interviews.
Trump, who has said without evidence that the 2020 election was stolen from him, repeated his skepticism about how states run elections. But he also offered his strongest endorsement of voting by mail, a process he has been highly critical of in the past, much to the dismay of other Republicans.
“All Republican governors,” Trump said, “should immediately opt for paper ballots, one-day voting and voter ID.”
“But until that day comes,” he added, “Republicans must compete using all legal means to win. That means flooding the left with mail-in ballots, early ballots, and Election Day votes. We have to do it. We have to change our thinking.»
The scene at this year’s CPAC was overwhelmingly supportive of Trump, the halls were packed with patrons decked out in Trump or MAGA gear. The former president easily won the conference’s annual opinion poll, beating DeSantis by more than 40 points. His win came as no surprise, given the absence of DeSantis and most of the other announced or potential 2024 hopefuls. The event, once a larger tent forum for conservative activists and donors, has been largely rebranded surrounding the politics of antagonism and grievances driven by Trump’s personality.
Instead, DeSantis attended a private donor retreat for the Club for Growth, a conservative organization that has distanced itself from Trump and prioritized trips to Texas and California to speak with Republican groups.
Speaking to reporters ahead of his CPAC speech, Trump deflected questions about DeSantis’ possible candidacy by talking about his own record as president.
“I’ve always had a good relationship with him,” Trump said when asked by NBC News if he would consider DeSantis as his vice-presidential running mate. «But it’s too early to talk about that.»
Trump’s speech included broad and vague promises if elected in 2024, some of them rooted in the culture wars over school curriculum and transgender rights that DeSantis has fought in Florida. Trump called for the «direct election» of school principals and said that parents should have the power to fire them. His comments were full of insults.
«Our enemies,» he said at one point, «are the madmen and the maniacs.»
Trump also promised political revenge against those enemies.
«If you return me to the White House, his reign is over,» he said. “In 2016, I declared: ‘I am your voice.’ Today I add: I am your warrior. I am your justice. And to those who have been wronged and betrayed, I am your retribution.»
Trump’s CPAC speech, like others he has given during this campaign, painted a dark picture of America teetering on the brink.
«This is the final battle. they know. I know. You know it. Everybody knows this is it,» Trump said. “Either they win or we win. And if they win, we no longer have a country.»
Trump has repeatedly said that the country is «on the brink of World War III» and has argued that he is the one to return it to peace and prosperity.
Trump spent considerable time lamenting the many government investigations into him, from the classified documents case to the investigation of Trump’s actions surrounding the 2020 election before a grand jury in Fulton County, Georgia. Trump criticized the district attorney there, as well as the foreman of the grand jury who has discussed the proceedings in recent interviews.
«It’s totally out of control,» Trump said. The district attorney, he added, «has a kangaroo court focused on a perfect phone call I made while the foreman, a rather strange young woman, was doing media interviews and saying exactly what was going on.»
Trump’s speech capped a four-day conference in which he and his closest allies were by far the most crowd-pleasers. The few sworn or potential rivals of his who did attend, including his former United Nations ambassador Nikki Haley, were greeted with an inhospitable mix of jeers and indifference.
The absences opened up more space for the Trump fandom to reign. Outside the main ballroom where he spoke, supporters gathered in line early, chanting “Trump! Triumph! Trump!» and singing the national anthem. And the dozens of speeches that preceded Trump’s were who’s who in the MAGA world, including Donald Trump Jr., Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, a Republican from Georgia, and Kari Lake, a prominent voter denier who lost her candidacy for governor of Arizona last year.
“I have come here because I support Trump. He deserves the chance to finish what he started,” said Melissa Elliott, of Richmond, Virginia.
CPAC, he said, was «one of the few places today where you can find like-minded people in a room.»