WASHINGTON — Donald Trump’s hold on the Republican Party will be on full display as an annual gathering of prominent U.S. conservatives starts in earnest on Friday, with a key question being whether the former president will run again in four years.
Prominent congressional conservatives including Senators Ted Cruz, Tom Cotton and Josh Hawley, and Representatives Steve Scalise and Matt Gaetz are among the Trump loyalists expected to speak at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Orlando, Florida, which Trump will address on Sunday.
Trump’s tumultuous final weeks in office saw his supporters launch a deadly attack on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 in an attempt to block Congress from certifying Democratic President Joe Biden’s election victory, a win that Trump falsely claimed was tainted by widespread fraud.
A total of 17 members of his party in Congress voted to impeach or convict him for inciting insurrection, although the Senate vote fell short of the two-thirds majority needed to convict. Some prominent Republicans including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell blasted Trump for his role in sparking the conflagration, but more members still voice support for him.
Trump also faces legal challenges, with the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office conducting a criminal investigation of his family-run Trump Organization.
Some advisers say they want Trump not to use his speech to relitigate the election at length but instead offer a road map to Republicans’ taking back control of the House of Representatives and the Senate in the 2022 congressional elections.
“Obviously he will talk about his belief that the election had major problems in it,” said one Trump adviser. “However, I believe and I hope that he pivots to how we fight Biden’s socialist agenda for America and hope that it will be about the future, not the past.”
Senator Lindsey Graham, one of Trump’s closest allies in Congress, told reporters in the Capitol that he expected Trump to talk about his policy achievements, the drawbacks of Biden’s approach to immigration and energy and to lay out a hopeful future for his “America First” agenda.
Graham said he told Trump it “would be a big mistake” to focus on the past election. Asked whether he thought Trump would follow that advice, Graham responded: “We’ll see.”
Trump, 74, is expected to dangle the possibility of running for president again in 2024, a prospect that complicates life for other Republican presidential hopefuls including former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and former Vice President Mike Pence.
Pence, who was in the Capitol with his family when rioters stormed in chanting: “Hang Mike Pence!” is not expected to attend this year’s CPAC.
Trump had repeatedly said Pence had the power to stop the certification of the election results, even though he did not.
CPAC is an event organized by the American Conservative Union, whose chairman, Matt Schlapp, is close to Trump. It is a prime venue for speakers who want to gauge interest in whether they should run for president based on the enthusiasm they generate.
The list of speakers on Friday includes Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, another potential 2024 candidate.
Many Republicans think Trump will flirt with another run to freeze the 2024 field but believe he will ultimately opt out of running. Trump himself has mused privately to advisers that he would like to run.
“I wouldn’t expect him to announce anything definitive,” said a second Trump adviser. “There’s a lot of wait and see right now among those who are mentioned as probable candidates. But I think they’re all smart enough to know that they have to wait and see. They know they can’t compete against the former president.” (Reporting by Steve Holland; Additional reporting by David Morgan; Editing by Scott Malone and Peter Cooney)