President Trump skipped the annual Conservative Political Action Conference last year, but this year he was the annual gathering’s hero who had finally returned the White House to Republicans.
Trump’s stem-winder of just under an hour, which he delivered to the adoring crowd just outside Washington on Friday morning, felt more like a campaign speech than a presidential address, reliving many of his greatest hits and applause lines on the campaign trail — even down to the crowd breaking out in chants of “lock her up” about his vanquished rival, Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.
The president boasted to attendees that “the era of empty talk is over” as he began to tick off each of his campaign promises.
“We’re going to repeal and replace Obamacare,” he promised, despite the fact that Republicans have not yet settled on an alternative plan.
“We’re going to build a wall. Don’t worry about it,” Trump crowed to the crowd, saying the plans were “way ahead of schedule.”
“As we speak today, immigration officers are finding gang members, drug dealers and criminal aliens and throwing them the hell out,” the president said. The comments follow memos this week from the Department of Homeland Security on how it will be enforcing executive orders on immigration and border security.
Attendees loved Trump’s strongman approach as he promised to rebuild the military and take on terrorism.
“As part of my pledge to restore safety for the American people, I have also directed the defense community to develop a plan to totally obliterate ISIS,” he said to cheers. “Working with our allies, we will eradicate this evil from the face of the Earth.”
And of course he threw plenty of jabs at his favorite punching bag — the media.
Trump claimed that the “dishonest media” would say he didn’t receive a standing ovation because everyone was standing in the room and never sat down.
And then he doubled down on his tweet a week ago calling the media the “enemy of the people.”
Trump claimed his comments had been misrepresented because he didn’t call all media the enemy — just the “fake news,” though he cited mainstream news sources that do not print fake news stories, such as CNN, NBC News, CBS News and others.
And he took aim at the use of anonymous or unnamed background sources in the media — even though, as is a common practice in many administrations, a “senior administration official” had just briefed reporters Friday morning on the condition of not being named.
“I’m against the people that make up stories and make up sources,” Trump said. “They shouldn’t be allowed to use sources unless they use somebody’s name. Let their name be put out there. Let their name be put out.”
With his usual bombast, the president boasted that “nobody loves [the First Amendment] better than me. Nobody.” But then he went on to issue an ominous warning: “So just in finishing, I say [the fake news] doesn’t represent the people, it … never will represent the people, and we’re going to do something about it because we have to go out and have to speak our minds and we have to be honest. Our victory was a win like nobody has ever seen before.”
Overall, the love was palpable from both sides as Trump addressed a capacity CPAC crowd.
“I love this place. Love you people,” the president said as he took the stage. “I wouldn’t miss a chance to talk to my friends. These are my friends.”
That wasn’t always the case. A year ago he wasn’t most attendees’ first choice at the gathering, which is typically more libertarian-leaning and hews more closely to conservative orthodoxy than the Trump brand of populism he campaigned on. Trump ultimately did not attend.
A rising “Never Trump” movement was forming at that time in the campaign, but Trump said Friday that the reason he skipped out was that he “was worried that I would be, at that time, too controversial” given his desire for border security and a “very, very strong military.”
Trump acknowledged that it was this very conference that may well have launched his electoral career six years ago when he made a last-minute appearance at CPAC in 2011. The way the president told it, that’s where he caught the political bug, loving the people there and the “commotion.”
“But it gave me an idea. And I got a little bit concerned when I saw what was happening in the country. And I said, ‘Let’s go to it,’ ” Trump said. “So, it was very exciting. I walked the stage on CPAC. I’ll never forget it, really. I had very little notes and even less preparation. So when you have practically no notes and no preparation and then you leave and everybody was thrilled, I said, ‘I think I like this business.’ ”
Now, as White House counselor Kellyanne Conway joked during her remarks Thursday morning, the conference is beginning to feel like “TPAC” in honor of Trump.