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

by Jill Colvin
| February 28, 2021 3:12 PM

ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — 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 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.”

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.

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.

Not Trump.

He delivered a sharp rebuke of what he framed as the new administration's first month of failures, including 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.

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.

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.

Nonetheless, 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, including the No. 3 House Republican, Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming.

Indeed, on Friday, Trump began his vengeance campaign, endorsing 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. He called into conservative news outlets after Rush Limbaugh's death and to wish Tiger Woods well after the pro golfer was injured in a car crash. He has also issued statements, including one blasting Mitch McConnell after the Senate Republican leader excoriated Trump for inciting the Capitol riot. McConnell has since said he would “absolutely” support Trump if he were the GOP nominee in 2024.

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 this past week to develop benchmarks for those seeking his endorsement to make sure the candidates are serious and have set up full-fledged political and fundraising organizations before he gets involved.

They are also planning a new super PAC that could raise unlimited amounts of money, though one aide cautioned they were still deciding whether to create a new entity or repurpose an existing America First super PAC.

Trump was not expected to announce Sunday that he would run again in 2024, but he continued to flirt with the prospect.

“You are going to see a speech on Sunday that talks about not only the beginning but what the future may look like," Trump’s former chief of staff Mark Meadows told Fox News Channel's Sean Hannity earlier this week. “What we will see on Sunday is we will see the start of planning for the next administration. And I can tell you, the people that are in the top of that list, all of 'em have Trump as their last name."