ORLANDO: Donald Trump returns to the political stage Sunday, determined to reassert his dominance over a Republican Party that is out of power and pondering whether the flawed former president can win again in 2024.
The 74-year-old addresses the Conservative Political Action Conference in Orlando in a highly-anticipated keynote speech during which he is expected to tease attendees about his political future — including the possibility of another presidential run.
Banned from Twitter and other social media, Trump has maintained a low profile at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida since he left the White House on January 20. CPAC is his coming-out party.
He is sure to be greeted with reverence by a loyalist crowd as he calls for Republican unity — and perhaps rips some of his critics within the party — on the final day of the nation’s largest conservative gathering.
“We are not starting new parties, and we will not be dividing our power and our strength,” Trump will say, according to Fox News.
“Instead, we will be united and strong like never before.”
US political parties usually face a reckoning after a string of setbacks such as those the Republican Party saw under four years of Trump: losing the White House, the Senate and the House of Representatives.
The party is also marked with Trump’s repeated lies about his election loss to Joe Biden, his impeachment for inciting an insurrection at the US Capitol on January 6, and the extraordinary faultline his actions have caused between establishment Republicans and pro-Trump populists.
But, instead of jettisoning its troubled leader and charting a new path to claw back relevance, much of the party still sees Trump as retaining a vice-like grip on its future.
It is a perception he has encouraged, setting himself up as a vindictive Republican kingmaker. On Friday he endorsed an ex-aide against an Ohio congressman who voted to impeach him.
A source familiar with Trump’s plans said the former president will be “talking about the future of the Republican Party” and will criticize some new Biden policies.
– Don’t ‘erase’ Trump –
But whether or not he harbors 2024 ambitions is perhaps the biggest question of all.
Republican National Committee chairwoman Ronna McDaniel claimed ignorance on that front when asked Sunday on CBS’s “Face the Nation” about whether Trump will run again.
“I do know he’s committed to helping us win back majorities in 2022” during the midterm elections, and to help “stop Biden in his tracks” by blocking his progressive agenda in Congress, McDaniel said.
She also downplayed divisions within her party, including the decisions by local GOP officials to censure Republicans who voted to impeach Trump in the House or convict him in the Senate.
“You can have state parties saying I disagree with that vote, but overwhelmingly our party agrees with each other more than we disagree with each other,” McDaniel said.
At CPAC, attendees posed next to a shiny gold-colored statue of Trump, and cheers rose up whenever panelists praised the former president.
“The least popular (leaders) in our party are the ones who want to erase Donald Trump and Donald Trump’s supporters from our party,” congressman Jim Banks, chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee, told the conference Saturday.
“If that happens, we won’t win back the majority in 2022. We definitely won’t win back the White House in 2024 if we erase Donald Trump.”
For some Republicans like Senator Bill Cassidy, who voted to convict Trump in the impeachment trial, moving on from the brash billionaire is critical.
“We’ve got to win in two years, we’ve got to win in four years,” Cassidy told CNN’s State of the Union.
“We’ll do that by speaking to those issues important to the American people — and there’s a lot of issues important to them right now — not by putting one person on a pedestal.”