Donald Trump returned to the limelight on Sunday and told enthusiastic conservatives that he may run for president again in 2024, when he tried to restore his dominance over a Republican party that has no power.
The 74-year-old spoke at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Orlando in a long-awaited keynote address.
But while teasing his future plans, he left the audience guessing whether he will challenge President Joe Biden in a rematch.
“You know, in fact, that they just lost the White House,” Trump said of Democrats, again promoting the falsehood that Trump was denied a second term because of election fraud.
“But who knows – who knows?” he boomed. “I might even decide to hit them for the third time, okay?”
Prohibited from Twitter and other social media, Trump has maintained a low profile at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida since leaving the White House on January 20.
At the CPAC event, he took to the stage to enjoy a long-standing standing ovation from jubilant loyalists, most of them maskless despite the coronavirus pandemic.
“The incredible journey we started together … is far from over,” Trump said of his populist movement. “And in the end, we will win.”
Trump also rested on rumors that he could take his support base to create a new political party.
“I’m not starting a new party,” Trump said. “We have the Republican Party. It will unite and be stronger than ever.”
Trump, as expected, fought Biden, saying the Democrat had just ended “the most disastrous first month” of any modern president.
But he also painted America as a divided country.
“Our security, our prosperity and our identity as Americans are at stake,” he said in a wandering speech that attacked immigrants, struck “disrupt culture” and criticized Biden’s policies on climate change, energy and electoral integrity.
American political parties usually face a calculation after a series of setbacks like the ones Republicans saw in four years of Trump: losing the White House, the Senate and the House of Representatives.
The party is also characterized by Trump’s repeated lies about his election loss, his accusation of inciting the US Capitol riots on January 6 and the margin of error that his actions have caused between establishment Republicans and pro-Trump populists.
But instead of hoisting its troubled leader and charting a new path to regain relevance, much of the party still sees Trump as maintaining a vice-like grip on his future.
It is a view he has encouraged and stood up as a vengeful Republican kingmaker. On Friday, he approved a former assistant to an Ohio congressman who voted to accuse him.
At least at the CPAC, Trump’s enthusiasm was still high. Participants posed next to a shiny gold-colored statue of the former president and cheered as panelists praised him.
In a straw poll conducted at the conference and released just before Trump’s speech, nearly seven in ten respondents said they want him to run again.
In the future direction of the party, support for Trumpism was rock hard, with 95 percent of respondents wanting to continue Trump’s policies and agenda.
But when asked who they prefer as the party’s candidate in 2024, a moderate 55 percent Trump, with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, de facto CPAC host, was a distant second with 21 percent.
The respected Republican strategist Karl Rove said he would have expected a stronger result for Trump, especially in a confab that seems to be so supportive of the ex-president.
“I would take that as a warning note,” Rove told Fox News.
“He needs to update his document.”
For some Republicans like Senator Bill Cassidy, who voted to convict Trump in the trial, it is important to move on from the tough billionaire.
“We have to win in two years, we have to win in four years,” Cassidy told CNN’s state for the union.
“We will do that by talking about the issues that are important to the American people – and there are many issues that are important to them right now – not by putting a person on a pedestal.”