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As CPAC Begins, Trump Still Looms Large

Then-President Donald Trump addresses the Conservative Political Action Conference at National Harbor in Oxon Hill, Md., February 29, 2020. (Yuri Gripas/Reuters)
Even though he's no longer president, Trump is set to directly and indirectly dominate the event.

Donald Trump may not be president, but he’s still headlining CPAC.

The former president will once again be the marquee event at the Conservative Political Action Conference beginning Thursday in Orlando, Fla. Trump’s Sunday speech will be his first post-presidential appearance, and he is expected to come out swinging.

“I may not have Twitter or the Oval Office, but I’m still in charge,” was the message described to Mike Allen of Axios this week. “Much like 2016, we’re taking on Washington again.”

Fox News reported Wednesday that while Trump will train plenty of fire on President Joe Biden, he will also oscillate between “warming up to the idea of a 2024 run, and walking right up to the line of announcing another campaign,” but is not expected to openly declare.

Trump will not be the only prospective 2024 Republican contender in attendance. Senators Tom Cotton, Ted Cruz, and Josh Hawley will all be speaking. South Dakota governor Kristi Noem and former secretary of state Mike Pompeo are also in the lineup, as is the Florida trio of Governor Ron DeSantis and Senators Marco Rubio and Rick Scott.

Two notable nonattendees are former United Nations ambassador Nikki Haley — reportedly rebuffed by Trump after a revealing Politico profile — as well as former vice president Mike Pence, who “spoke very favorably about his relationship with President Trump” during a meeting with House Republicans on Tuesday, according to Republican Study Committee chair and CPAC attendee Jim Banks.

Banks, who represents Indiana’s third congressional district, will appear in a CPAC Sunday panel with House minority leader Kevin McCarthy on the GOP’s path to winning back the House. McCarthy had a tense moment Wednesday during the House Republican leadership press conference, where he and House Republican Conference chair Liz Cheney (R., Wyo.) offered starkly different assessments of Trump’s role at CPAC.

Cheney, who along with nine Republican colleagues voted to impeach Trump over the January 6 Capitol riot, stated that “I don’t think he should be playing a role in the future of party.”

“On that high note, thank you very much,” McCarthy quipped afterwards.

Cheney and other Republican critics of Trump, including Senator Mitt Romney, will not be attending CPAC. (“He has by far the largest voice and a big impact in my party,” Romney said of Trump’s future on Tuesday. “I don’t know if he’s planning to run in 2024 or not, but if he does, I’m pretty sure he would win the nomination.”) Romney did not attend CPAC last year, either; Matt Schlapp, its chairman, claimed that he would be unable to guarantee Romney’s “physical safety” at the conference if he had attended. (In the following days, after an attendee with coronavirus was revealed to have interacted with several high-profile guests, Schlapp engaged in a confused back-and-forth over the degree of coronavirus testing done on site and refused to publicly identify the infected individual.) Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell was also not invited, the Lexington Herald-Leader reported.

“Leader McConnell did a great job confirming judges, and we know he will be a strong supporter of restoring appropriate election laws. Next year would be a better year for him to address the improvements to election laws once the states have time to act,” Dan Schneider, executive director of the American Conservative Union — which hosts the event — told the paper.

According to its schedule, CPAC will have a seven-part series of panels on “protecting elections,” which spokesperson Ian Walters explained to MSNBC’s Marc Ambinder as “the big issue going forward.”

“It’s forward-thinking,” Walters said. “Are we going to allow the way that the laws were changed over the summer of 2020 — is that the new normal? Once coronavirus is done, once the pandemic is done, does that stay in place permanently? I think that’s a fair question to ask and kick around.”

Panel topics include “The Left Pulled the Strings, Covered It Up, and Even Admits It” — in an apparent reference to a Time article that detailed a “vast, cross-partisan campaign to protect the election” — and another titled “Other Culprits: Why Judges & Media Refused to Look at the Evidence.”

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