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Trump Calls For GOP Unity, Repeats Lies03/01 06:14

   

   ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) -- Taking the stage for the first time since leaving 
office, former President Donald Trump called for GOP unity, even as he 
exacerbated intraparty divisions by attacking fellow Republicans and promoting 
lies about the election in a speech that made clear he intends to remain a 
dominant political force.

   Speaking Sunday at the Conservative Political Action Conference, where he 
was hailed as a returning hero, Trump blasted his successor, President Joe 
Biden, and tried to lay out a vision for the future of the GOP that revolves 
firmly around him, despite his loss in November.

   "Do you miss me yet?" Trump said after taking the stage to his old rally 
soundtrack and cheers from the supportive crowd.

   Trump, in his speech, tried to downplay the civil war gripping the party 
over the extent to which Republicans should embrace him, even as he unfurled an 
enemies list, calling out by name the 10 House Republicans and seven GOP 
senators who voted to impeach or convict him for inciting the U.S. Capitol 
riot. He ended by singling out Rep. Liz Cheney, the No. 3 House Republican, who 
has faced tremendous backlash in Wyoming for saying Trump should no longer play 
a role in the party or headline the event.

   While he insisted the division was merely a spat "between a handful of 
Washington, D.C., establishment political hacks and everybody else, all over 
the country," Trump had a message for the incumbents who had dared to cross 
him: "Get rid of 'em all."

   The conference, held this year in Orlando instead of the Washington suburbs 
to evade COVID-19 restrictions, served as a tribute to Trump and Trumpism, 
complete with a golden statue in his likeness on display. Speakers, including 
many potential 2024 hopefuls, argued that the party must embrace the former 
president and his followers, even after the deadly insurrection at the Capitol 
on Jan. 6.

   They also repeated in panel after panel his unfounded claims that he lost 
reelection only because of mass voter fraud, even though such claims have been 
rejected by judges, Republican state officials and Trump's own administration.

   Trump, too, continued to repeat what Democrats have dubbed the "big lie," 
calling the election "rigged" and insisting that he won in November, even 
though he lost by more than 7 million votes.

   "As you know, they just lost the White House," he said of Biden, rewriting 
history.

   It is highly unusual for past American presidents to publicly criticize 
their successors in the months after leaving office. Ex-presidents typically 
step out of the spotlight for at least a while: Barack Obama was famously seen 
kitesurfing on vacation after he departed, while George W. Bush said he 
believed Obama "deserves my silence" and took up painting.

   Not Trump.

   He delivered a sharp rebuke of what he framed as the new administration's 
first month of failures, especially Biden's approach to immigration and the 
border.

   "Joe Biden has had the most disastrous first month of any president in 
modern history," Trump said.

   White House press secretary Jen Psaki had brushed off the expected criticism 
last week. "We'll see what he says, but our focus is certainly not on what 
President Trump is saying at CPAC," she told reporters.

   Aside from criticizing Biden, Trump used the speech to crown himself the 
future of the Republican Party, even as many leaders argue they must move in a 
new, less divisive direction after Republicans lost not just the White House, 
but both chambers of Congress.

   Though Trump has flirted with the the idea of creating a third party, he 
pledged Sunday to remain part of "our beloved" GOP.

   "I'm going to continue to fight right by your side. We're not starting new 
parties," he said. "We have the Republican Party. It's going to be strong and 
united like never before." Yet Trump spent much of the speech lashing out at 
those he has deemed insufficiently loyal and dubbed "RINOs" --- Republican in 
name only --- for failing to stand with him.

   "We cannot have leaders who show more passion for condemning their fellow 
Americans than they have ever shown for standing up to Democrats, the media and 
the radicals who want to turn America into a socialist country," Trump said.

   Trump did not use his speech to announce plans to run again, but he 
repeatedly teased the prospect as he predicted a Republican would win back the 
White House in 2024.

   "And I wonder who that will be," he offered. "Who, who, who will that be? I 
wonder."

   It remains unclear, however, how much appetite there would be for another 
Trump term, even in the room of staunch supporters.

   The conference's annual unscientific straw poll of just over 1,000 attendees 
found that 97% approved of the job Trump did as president. But they were much 
more ambiguous when asked whether he should run again, with only 68% saying he 
should.

   If the 2024 primary were held today and Trump were in the race, just 55% 
said they would vote for him, followed by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis at 21%. 
Without Trump in the field, DeSantis garnered 43% support, followed by 8% for 
South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem and 7% each for former Secretary of State Mike 
Pompeo and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz.

   While he no longer has his social media megaphone after being barred from 
Twitter and Facebook, Trump had been inching back into public life even before 
the speech. He called into conservative news outlets after talk radio star Rush 
Limbaugh's death and has issued statements, including one blasting Mitch 
McConnell after the Senate Republican leader excoriated Trump for inciting the 
Capitol riot. McConnell has since said he would "absolutely" support Trump if 
he were the GOP nominee in 2024.

   At his Mar-a-Lago club in Palm Beach, Florida, Trump has also been quietly 
meeting with aides and senior party leaders as he builds his post-presidential 
political operation. While he has already backed several pro-Trump candidates, 
including one challenging an impeachment supporter, aides have been working 
this past week to develop benchmarks for those seeking his endorsement to make 
sure the candidates are serious and have set up full-fledged political and 
fundraising organizations before he gets involved.

   They are also planning a new super PAC that could raise unlimited amounts of 
money, though one aide cautioned they were still deciding whether to create a 
new entity or repurpose an existing America First super PAC.

   Trump hinted at the effort Sunday, voicing his commitment to helping elect 
Republicans and calling on attendees to join him.

   "I stand before you today to declare that the incredible journey we begun 
together ... is far from being over," he said.

 
 
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