When the annual Conservative Political Action Conference — CPAC for short — kicks off Thursday in Orlando, Fla., it might as well be called TPAC.
That's because this year, it is all about Trump.
The former president will headline the event with a Sunday afternoon keynote address, his first speech since leaving office last month.
It comes as the Republican Party is struggling with its identity after Donald Trump's presidency. And yet CPAC, the largest gathering of conservative activists in the U.S., will still very much be a pro-Trump event.
The conference, organized and sponsored by the American Conservative Union, will even keep alive Trump's false claims of election fraud with several panels on the topic with names like "Other Culprits: Why Judges & Media Refused to Look at the Evidence," "The Left Pulled the Strings, Covered It Up, and Even Admits It" and "Failed States (PA, GA, NV, oh my!)."
"We're going to spend a lot of time looking at what happened in these states," Matt Schlapp, chairman of the ACU, said on CNN this week. Schlapp claimed to have "proof" of "widespread voter fraud in the last election," yet presented none on air.
He went on to say that "Joe Biden is my president" and that "he won the election," but then pivoted, raising suspicion: "That doesn't mean that there wasn't voter fraud and voter irregularity in the last election."
Schlapp — a lobbyist and husband of Mercedes Schlapp, who worked in the Trump White House — is walking the same line other Republicans have been, between the truth and conspiracies that are popular with Trump and his base.
CPAC didn't used to be so MAGA. In fact, Trump snubbed the conference in 2016 after a dispute over speech ground rules and wanting him to answer questions at the event.
Five years later, though, the political world — as well as the grassroots conservative movement — has changed substantially.
And, now, at this annual cattle call, there's no penning Trump in.
Trump put the 2024 field on ice — and he likes it that way
In his speech, Trump is expected to draw distinctions with President Biden, particularly when it comes to immigration, which was an animating issue for the GOP base during Trump's political tenure.
He is also expected to speak about the future of the Republican Party, and he very much wants to be seen as not just a player but the player — the "presumptive 2024 nominee," in fact, as Axios reports.
Trump's dangling of running again has effectively frozen the GOP field. CPAC has, for decades, been a place where presidential hopefuls have tested out their messages and possible depth of support.
A handful of would-be presidential hopefuls will be on hand this year, including Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem and former Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, as well as Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas, Tom Cotton of Arkansas and Josh Hawley of Missouri.
They are in an awkward holding pattern, but while ambitious potential candidates might want Trump out of the way, they want his voters even more.
That's why people like former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, Trump's former ambassador to the United Nations, tried to meet with Trump at Mar-a-Lago, his Florida home, to make sure they're still on good terms.
Former Vice President Mike Pence, who also very much has presidential ambitions, was targeted by the mob of Trump supporters who stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6.
"Hang Mike Pence!" some chanted, as he presided over a usually ceremonial counting of the electoral votes.
Pence had to be escorted out of the Capitol for his safety, but even as the riot was unfolding, Trump lashed out at Pence on Twitter (where Trump is now banned). He said Pence "didn't have the courage to do what should have been done" to overturn the election results — something Pence had no real power to do.
Still, despite reported tension between the two following Jan. 6, Pence told former congressional colleagues this week that he and Trump maintain a good relationship. He told them he's forming a political organization that will defend the work of their administration.
But Pence declined an invitation to speak at CPAC.
Trump's lofty status and an event that has changed — a lot
CPAC has taken on many different forms over the years.
To show just how much it has changed recently, consider that in 2007, 2008, 2009 and 2012, Mitt Romney, the 2012 Republican presidential nominee, was the crowd favorite, winning the conference's straw poll each of those four years.
But the now-Utah senator — who has been a vocal Trump critic and voted for Trump's conviction on impeachment charges twice — is persona non grata at this Trumpy variation of CPAC.
There was also a strong libertarian strain, particularly among young attendees. Either former Texas Rep. Ron Paul or his son, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, were the picks of the CPAC crowd in 2010, 2011, 2013, 2014 and 2015. But that is all but gone. Rand Paul declined an invitation to this year's conference, as he has in recent years.
That Trump retains in this lofty perch within the Republican Party is somewhat remarkable. When he came into office, the party controlled all the levers of power in Washington — the House, the Senate and, with his election, the White House.
Now, it controls none.
Part of how Trump has retained his hold on the rank and file is by convincing tens of millions of them that the election was stolen from him.
Trump went on a months-long disinformation campaign discrediting Biden's victory. His inaccurate fraud claims and conspiracy theories were disproved by dozens of courts, but the depth of support for his false grievance was made plain by the thousands of his flag-waving supporters who participated in the Jan. 6 violence.
There was no peaceful transfer of power, and Trump has yet to acknowledge that he lost fair and square. For months, Trump was also enabled by elected Republican leaders who knew better and later acknowledged that Biden won legitimately.
That includes Republican leaders like Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif. They seemed to be hoping that if they gave Trump room to protest the election results through the courts, then he would come around once there were rulings.
That never happened. Instead, Trump dug in, abetted by conservative media, which amplified and gave traction to his false claims.
After Jan. 6, McConnell publicly rebuked Trump, blaming him for the riot. That landed McConnell in a very public feud with the most popular person in his party.
McCarthy — who has done head-snapping reversals over the years when it comes to Trump — first went McConnell's path, saying Trump "bears responsibility" for the Capitol violence. But he quickly reversed course, making up with Trump in a fence-mending trip to Mar-a-Lago.
Q: Do you believe former President Trump should speaking at CPAC?@GOPLeader: "Yes he should."@RepLizCheney: "That's up to CPAC....I don't believe that he should be playing a role in the future of the party or the country."— CSPAN (@cspan) February 24, 2021
McCarthy: "On that high note, thank you very much." pic.twitter.com/ZOkTUbpQCP
On Wednesday, McCarthy was asked if he believes Trump should be speaking at CPAC. "Yes, he should," McCarthy said during a news conference on Capitol Hill.
Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney — who is in House GOP leadership but voted for Trump's impeachment — was then asked for her view.
"That's up to CPAC," Cheney said. "I've been clear in my views about President Trump and the extent to which, following Jan. 6, I don't think he should be playing a role in the future of the party or the country."
"On that high note, thank you all very much," McCarthy said to laughs, as he walked off.
McCarthy participates in a panel Saturday afternoon at CPAC on "Winning Back America." Neither McConnell nor Cheney will be appearing.
CPAC has also shown a willingness to exclude not just those who don't line up with Trump but also some with odious and controversial views.
We have just learned that someone we invited to CPAC has expressed reprehensible views that have no home with our conference or our organization. The individual will not be participating at our conference.— CPAC 2022 (@CPAC) February 22, 2021
The speaker was offended and accused CPAC of the same thing conservatives often say of Big Tech companies and universities.
"I feel like I'm being silenced," he said. "I feel like my rights are being violated. Basically I'm being censored."
Conservatives have complained that social media sites, like Twitter and Facebook, are biased because they have banned or removed content.
Posts have been removed because the sites determined they were false or misleading or promoted conspiracies that could lead to violence — the kind of conspiracies that went mainstream during Trump's presidency and led to the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection.
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
This weekend, former President Donald Trump will give his first public speech since leaving office. Trump will speak at the Conservative Political Action Conference - or CPAC - which starts tonight. This comes, of course, as the Republican Party wrestles with what role the former president should have in the party going forward. NPR senior political editor and correspondent Domenico Montanaro is here. Hi, Domenico.
DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.
MARTIN: I mean, I guess CPAC has sort of just made its decision on what role President Trump should play in the party since they invited him in the first place.
MONTANARO: Yeah. You're not going to hear much about the Republican divide (laughter) at this CPAC.
MONTANARO: It's basically rolling out the red carpet for Trump. He's the most popular person in the party. And if you're not on board with that, you're probably not going to be at this CPAC. We did, though, see an interesting moment yesterday at a House Republican leadership conference - press conference that underscored this very real divide. Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy was asked if Trump should speak at CPAC. He said, yes, he should, of course. But a reporter wanted to know what Congresswoman Liz Cheney thought, too. Remember, she voted to impeach Trump. Here's what she had to say, followed by McCarthy's reaction.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
LIZ CHENEY: That's up to CPAC. I've been clear on my views about President Trump and the extent to which, following January 6, I don't believe that he should be playing a role in the future of the party or the country.
KEVIN MCCARTHY: On that high note, thank you all very much.
MARTIN: Not high note. McCarthy quips. Oh, awkward.
MONTANARO: So he walked off, press conference over. He'll speak at CPAC. Liz Cheney will not.
MARTIN: So let's talk about who will be there and who will not. Give us the rundown.
MONTANARO: Well, usually, you know, we pay attention to these things because there's something of a cattle call for presidential hopefuls, people like Texas Senator Ted Cruz, Josh Hawley of Missouri, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. They'll all be speaking. And they might be thinking about running in 2024. But it's - but Trump's not out of the picture. He, you know, has let it be known that he's thinking about it. And that's effectively frozen the field. You can also tell a lot by who won't be there, people like Mitch McConnell, the Senate Republican leader who got into that very public feud with Trump about the Capitol riot, Mitt Romney, who's been a vocal Trump critic but had done very well at CPAC previously - Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, same situation. That strand of libertarianism is just kind of gone from the Republican Party. And Mike Pence was invited, the - Trump's former vice president. But he is not going to be speaking as well.
MARTIN: I mean, what does this tell you about the state of the modern GOP, Domenico?
MONTANARO: I mean, you know, look; like CPAC, it's gone through a lot of different iterations. I mean, there'd been this messy tension between traditional establishment Republicans and Tea Party types, included, like I said, this strong libertarian streak. Now it is all about Trump, so much so that this conference is elevating his false claims of widespread election fraud, which there's no evidence for. Here's Matt Schlapp, who's chairman of the American Conservative Union, which sponsors this event, trying to draw a fine line on CNN earlier this week.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
MATT SCHLAPP: Joe Biden is my president, OK? He won the election. That doesn't mean that there wasn't voter fraud and voter irregularity in the last election.
MONTANARO: So you can hear the kind of pivot he's trying to make. And, you know, look, Schlapp is - claimed that there was widespread fraud, which has been debunked repeatedly by dozens of courts where Trump lost in case after case. But, you know, CPAC's going to have dozens of panels about the election, names like Other Culprits: Why Judges And The Media Refuse To Look At The Evidence - and Failed States: Pennsylvania, Georgia, Nevada, Oh, My. Look; it tells me Republicans, in this age of Trump, with him as their leader, they're going to continue to try to walk this tightrope between reality and, frankly, dangerous conspiracies.
MARTIN: NPR senior political editor and correspondent Domenico Montanaro. Thank you.
MONTANARO: You're welcome.
(SOUNDBITE OF MAMMAL HANDS' "HOURGLASS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.