NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. – It was only one year ago that then-GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump snubbed the Conservative Political Action Conference, pulling out of a scheduled appearance at the last minute.
But this year, he took the Potomac Ballroom stage Friday morning as the president of the United States.
It was only last year that Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Ben Sasse and several others took swipes at Trump, explicitly or implicitly, from the main CPAC stage. It was only last year that anti-Trump sentiment pervaded the air at the nation’s largest annual gathering of conservatives. Many dedicated activists and “movement conservatives” did not trust the real estate mogul and reality TV star, believing he was not one of them.
But this year is not last year.
Friday, President Trump emerged from backstage to thunderous applause from the enthusiastic crowd of young, old and middle-aged Americans in the jam-packed ballroom. Shortly after 9:30, 50 minutes before Trump was scheduled to speak, an announcement came over the PA system that the room was at capacity and anyone who left the room after that point would not be allowed back in. By the time Trump took the stage, it would have taken a shoehorn to squeeze any more spectators into the ballroom.
Watch Trump’s speech:
“You finally have a president,” he told attendees of the 44th annual conference. “It took you a long time. It’s patriots like you that made it happen.”
If CPAC 2017 was any indication, conservatives appear to have embraced Trump.
The raucous crowd seemed to recognize and appreciate that while he may not be a “pure conservative,” he delivered the White House back to Republicans after eight years of one of the most liberal Democratic presidents ever.
In his nearly 50-minute speech, Trump clearly signaled that the Republican Party and the conservative movement he leads will be different: It will reject globalism and put American interests first.
“The GOP will be, from now on, the party also of the American worker,” the president declared. “The forgotten men and women of America will be forgotten no longer. That is the heart of this movement and the future of the Republican Party.”
Trump made clear it’s good to get along with foreign countries, but he is not the president of the entire globe.
“There is one allegiance that unites us all, and that is to America,” he proclaimed.
Trump appeared to reach out to conservatives who doubt he shares their values, saying his election victory was their victory.
“The victory and the win was something that really was dedicated to a country and people that believe in freedom, security and the rule of law,” he declared. “It was a victory and a win for conservative values.”
But the president recognized his movement is not the same as the traditional conservative movement, and he attempted to define it.
“The core conviction of our movement is that we are a nation that puts, and will put, its own citizens first,” he stated.
Trump ran through a laundry list of his policy priorities, most of which he has spoken about before. He promised to defend America’s borders, saying his border wall is ahead of schedule. He touted the fact that ICE officers are now throwing illegal alien criminals and drug dealers out of the country.
He promised to work with the Justice Department to reduce violent crime and support law enforcement personnel. He spoke of the need to repair America’s infrastructure and stop throwing away trillions of dollars on Middle Eastern wars. He promised to repeal and replace Obamacare. He promised to negotiate one-on-one trade deals and lift restrictions on U.S. energy.
He assured listeners he would reduce taxes on the middle class and demand that the pipes used to construct the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines would be American-made. He promised to build up the military, “totally obliterate” ISIS and keep Islamic terrorists out of America.
On the latter point, he promised to take a new action in a few days to keep Americans safe.
Of course, it wouldn’t have been a Trump speech without a sustained attack on the reporters in the room. The president declared he and his movement are fighting the “fake news,” whom he termed the enemy of the people. He made clear that he is not against the entire media, but only those whom he says make up stories and invent sources.
He warned many media outlets are owned by “corporations that have their own agenda, and it’s not your agenda and it’s not the country’s agenda.”
When Trump walked to the podium, greeted by a sea of cell phones and cameras, he went out of his way to express his appreciation for CPAC, the gathering he had spurned a year earlier.
“I really love this place. Love you people,” he said, adding he wouldn’t miss a chance to talk to his “friends.”
He said he would have come last year, but he worried at the time his message would have been too controversial.
But now, having clearly won over CPAC, and maybe the conservative movement and Republican Party, too, Trump’s concerns were assuaged.
He promised to come back next year, the year after that and for many years to come.