Return him to the White House, and Donald Trump promised to deliver global peace and domestic harmony. Deny him a second term, and the United States would become “a failed country,” a nation “that no one will even recognize – a lawless, open-borders, crime-ridden, filthy communist nightmare.”
That was the choice the former president presented to an adoring crowd at the Conservative Political Action Conference a few miles outside the nation's capital in suburban Maryland. As he spoke, many of the exuberant MAGA faithful seemed ready to carry him across the Potomac and reinstall him in the Oval Office then and there.
Trump is competing for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination, and perhaps for the first time, he will have to defend his record from the right, not the left. He didn’t mention any of his GOP rivals by name, some of whom had served on his own cabinet and who had taken the same stage the day before. Instead, he called out the old guard, promising “we are never going back to the party of Paul Ryan, Karl Rove, and Jeb Bush.”
The main distinction between Trump and those previous Republican leaders? “I was the only president in modern history who did not have any new wars. No new wars,” he said of his presidency before qualifying, though, that he had “finished some old ones.”
Land war in Europe provided Trump the opportunity to talk foreign policy at length. In his telling on Saturday night, the world teeters on the brink of a third world war, a conflict he claimed he could prevent “very easily.” The war in Ukraine could be buttoned up and over with, Trump told the crowd, “very quickly.”
During an impromptu press conference before taking the stage, Trump told reporters that he has a plan to end that war “in 24 hours.” He wouldn’t give any details, he explained, “because if I told you that, I probably wouldn't be able to do it.” Of course, he added, Russian tanks would’ve never rolled across Ukraine if he had remained in the White House.
“I was also the only president where Russia didn’t take over a country during my time. Russia didn’t take over because I got along with Vladimir Putin very well,” he said of the Russian leader. “I’d say ‘Vladimir, don’t do it. You know, you and I are friends, don’t take over any countries because you know, Moscow will be hit very hard.’”
Trump also returned to his regular complaint that Europe was taking the United States for a ride. “If you look at Ukraine, and we all feel so badly about it,” he said, “why isn't NATO putting up dollar for dollar with us?” He complained when he noted that Europe was contributing “just a tiny fraction” of the critical war materiel needed to keep Ukraine standing. Pointing to the map, he continued that while he wanted to see Ukraine succeed, “It's far more important to them than it is to us because of the location.”
Just hours earlier Trump had won the CPAC straw poll with 62% of the vote, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis coming in a distant second with 20%. The result was expected. He’d won the previous five straw votes, and the populist conference served as more of an unofficial coronation than a true cattle call. Other than former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, most potential 2024 candidates stayed away. This includes former Vice President Pence, who declined an invitation, and DeSantis, who traveled this weekend to a donor retreat hosted by the conservative Club for Growth.
Trump did not mention either rival, though he claimed to reporters before the event that Pence had the right to overturn the presidential election and, during the speech, that the Republican Party would never be controlled by people who “want to destroy our great Social Security system.” Earlier in the week, Trump accused DeSantis of being “a wheelchair-over-the-cliff kind of guy.” For understandable reasons, Trump welcomes a large field, telling reporters, “the more, the merrier.”
The Republican primary season promises to be a battle royale with multiple candidates vying for the nomination. If half as many candidates run in 2024 as did in 2016, it could quickly devolve into the kind of name-calling, substance-free chaos that defined that last contest. The former president can also deliver mayhem all on his own.
Though under investigation by prosecutors probing his efforts to overturn the results of the last presidential election in Georgia, and by the U.S. Justice Department, Trump declared that not even an indictment would end his candidacy. “I won't even think about leaving," he told James Rosen of Newsmax, speculating, “Probably, it'll enhance my numbers.”
Trump returned to his claim onstage that he had won the 2020 election, and he condemned the investigations as politically motivated, telling the audience that “they want to lynch you for doing nothing wrong,” but complaining that “Joe Biden is a criminal and nothing ever seems to happen to him.” The idea that Democrats want a rematch, he said, was “bullshit” because why else would his opponents launch those investigations.
His enemies are many, and Trump told the crowd as much. “In 2016, I declared, ‘I am your voice,’” he said. “Today, I add, I am your warrior, I am your justice, and for those who have been wronged and betrayed, I am your retribution.”
Vengeance would not get in the way of setting things right at home. Trump promised that he would fix public education in short order through “universal school choice and the direct election of school principals by the parents.” He called for new child tax credits, declaring “I want a baby boom!” Crime rates would fall, business would rebound, and there would be “a quantum leap in the American standard of living,” Trump claimed, “especially for our young people.”
Trump took the opportunity to unveil two new policies. First, he said, “the federal government should take over control and management of Washington, D.C.” Second, he called for the building of “new freedom cities on the frontier to give countless Americans a new shot at homeownership and the American dream.”
The former president seemed to relish being back in the spotlight. His speech lasted more than an hour and a half. He took the opportunity to take yet another victory lap, recalling how “wonderful” things once were when he was in charge and how “great” things could be again if he won. But the contest was existential, the dichotomy Trump presented, rigid.
“We have no choice. If we don’t do this, our country will be lost forever,” he said, echoing a similar claim that he delivered less than three years ago. People are tired of RINOs and globalists. They want to see America First.” He continued, “This is the final battle. They know it, I know it. You know it, everybody knows it. This is it. Either they win or we win, and if they win, we no longer have a country.”
Return him to the White House, Trump said, and all would be well. A loss, he insisted, would mean all would be lost forever.