National Harbor, Md. — A terse tweet from the American Conservative Union’s official CPAC account broke the news just after noon on Friday. But over an hour later, many conference attendees still weren’t aware that Donald Trump backed out of his planned Saturday morning speech.
“When did that happen?!” says Casey Carson, a student at University of South Florida sitting in the Potomac Ballroom at Gaylord Hotel in National Harbor, Maryland. She was disappointed because she’d hoped to see all the candidates, but she is certainly no fan. “He’s kind of an ass****,” she says, rolling her eyes.
After their initial surprise, few attendees seemed particularly shocked by Trump’s decision. It’s not entirely clear why he chose to disinvite himself from the conservative conference in National Harbor, Md. — the Trump campaign said the billionaire real-estate mogul had scheduled a Saturday speech in Kansas, the same day Republicans go to the polls to choose their nominee, and would therefore be unable to attend. A spokesman for the American Conservative Union did not immediately respond when asked what the Trump campaign told them, and whether they believed the excuse.
Many CPAC attendees had a few ideas about Trump’s thought process, however. “I’m not sure he’s really a conservative, and I think he probably saw that the support wasn’t going to be here,” says Lori Weaver. “He doesn’t need to be here, he’s got momentum.”
“If I were him, I don’t know why I’d want to be here,” says Mark Shepard. “‘The conservatives and Republicans are all ganging up on me, so why would I come into the lion’s den? This is not the crowd I need to get elected. I need the guys who are voting for me on Drudge.’”
Most of CPAC is bitterly opposed to Trump’s candidacy — as of Thursday, there was at least one mass walkout planned during his now-canceled speech, and rumors swirled of additional protests. “I think if Donald had showed up he would have been booed out of the hall, so I could understand him not putting up with that,” says David Lamden, one of the few CPAC attendees who admits he’d be fine with Trump as the nominee.
Lamden doesn’t think Trump’s decision to drop out of the conference will hurt him politically, a sentiment shared by many in the hall. “I think if this crowd doesn’t get Cruz as the Republican nominee, and if Trump is the Republican nominee, I think Cruz voters will go to Trump,” he says.
But others were less sanguine. “Everyone comes here,” says David Mica, a student at Northeastern University. “People who dropped out, people from various wings of the party, come here. So for him to not be here sends a message, I think.”
“If he really wants to reign in the nomination — if that’s his goal — then he’d start to want to be unifying and sort of bring people in rather than casting them out,” Mica continues. “That was the big thing at the debate last night, right? ‘I’m a unifier.’ This isn’t really a sign of that.”