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Trump set for coronation as conservatives descend on CPAC

This year’s Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) is doubling as a coronation for former President Trump, underscoring the extent to which he has taken over the GOP. 

Trump will address the conference on Saturday, taking the stage hours before he is likely to thump Nikki Haley in her home state of South Carolina as he races toward clinching the Republican presidential nomination. 

Many of the speakers attending CPAC are Trump’s most high-profile allies, some of whom are vying to join him on the ticket in November. In a nod to the inevitability of Trump as the nominee, CPAC’s straw poll will have a question about who attendees would like to see him pick as his vice president. 

The conference comes amid other signs that Trump is tightening his grip on the party. He has moved to reshuffle the top brass at the Republican National Committee (RNC), and his influence on Capitol Hill helped scuttle a bipartisan border security deal. 

“The heart and soul of the conservative movement, the heart and soul of the Republican Party, the people that make things happen, they’re all for Trump,” said Matt Schlapp, chairman of the American Conservative Union, which hosts CPAC. “They’re not really having a conversation about this presidential race because they think it’s over.”

Trump romped in the Iowa caucuses, won handily in New Hampshire and was unopposed in the Nevada caucus. He is on track for a runaway victory in South Carolina, and his campaign in a memo this week predicted he would win the necessary delegates to clinch the nomination no later than March 19. 

Trump has molded and morphed the GOP since his 2016 presidential win, with CPAC serving as the latest example.  

One of this year’s sessions is called “The Globalists’ Threat to Sovereignty: The WHO and the UN Climate Agenda” — a nod to rhetoric that Trump has used to target foes like Haley — and “Burning Down the House,” the latter of which is led by Trump ally Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), who led efforts to boot former House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.). 

The evolution of CPAC is a reflection of how Trump has transformed the GOP in his image.

When Trump spoke at the 2015 event, he was a political outsider who hadn’t yet declared his first presidential run. At the time, he was met with skepticism from many in his party, especially over his remarks promoting conspiracy theories about former President Obama’s place of birth.

In 2017, during the first year of the Trump presidency, speakers at the conference included the likes of former national security adviser John Bolton, former Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey (R), then-Vice President Mike Pence and then-White House chief of staff Reince Priebus, all of whom have since distanced themselves from Trump or been pushed out of politics. 

This year’s conference, on the other hand, will feature Sen. JD Vance (R-Ohio), South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem (R) and Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.), who are all in the mix for Trump’s vice president. Other speakers include Trump loyalists like Gaetz, Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) and former Trump official Steve Bannon. 

Haley and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) were both invited to attend the event, though neither is scheduled to be there. Haley spoke last year, while DeSantis skipped the annual gathering altogether.  

“It’s a perfect reflection of where Republicans and conservatives are,” Schlapp said.

In a nod to Trump’s hold over both the GOP and CPAC, the multi-day conference has become dubbed “TPAC.”  

“It’s close to a Trump campaign event as you can get,” said former Trump White House press secretary Sean Spicer, who is also a contributor for NewsNation. The Hill and NewsNation are both owned by Nexstar. 

Some Republicans say Trump appeals to CPAC-goers because of his persona and charisma. 

“There is no one who comes close to Trump in connecting with the CPAC audience and there probably never will be,” said John Ullyot, who served as a senior adviser on the 2016 Trump campaign. 

“It’s a combination of his policies and respect for how he’s transformed the party … in CPAC’s direction of being an anti-globalist, pro-America party, but it is also his personality as well,” he added. “CPAC attendees really like his pugilistic attitude and his willingness to stand up to establishment.” 

Other Republicans say CPAC’s evolution runs parallel to the changing direction of the party. 

“The same way Ronald Reagan defined the conservative movement in the ’80s and ’90s, Donald Trump and his populist worldview defines the movement today,” said one Trump-aligned GOP operative.

“CPAC has always been a reflection of the conservative grassroots, and the GOP grassroots of today supports limiting immigration, opposing multinational trade deals and is deeply skeptical of foreign intervention that isn’t in America’s direct interest.” 

Trump magnified some of those issues in recent weeks as he criticized a now-collapsed Senate border deal that had previously included buy-in from even some of the former president’s allies like Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.).  

He also received scrutiny over some of his recent remarks around Russia and NATO, in which he purportedly told a president from another country that he would allow Russia “to do whatever the hell they want” if that NATO country didn’t meet its fair share on defense spending. 

Several Republican senators over the weekend largely dismissed those comments, arguing NATO allies need to pay their fair share and served as a “wake-up” call to those countries.  

“I don’t see that that’s area for concern at all among Republicans, because what it is, is it’s President Trump very bluntly saying to NATO, ‘Look, that you need to provide your own security and that while we’re allied with you in NATO, NATO can no longer be … an American-funded enterprise, it’s really a regional alliance that’s focused on Europe,’” Ullyot, who served as chief spokesman for the National Security Council (NSC) under Trump. 

Some Republicans argue that the border security deal was already flawed to begin with regardless of Trump’s views, though they acknowledge what Trump says matters. 

“If a President Trump was playing golf and retired, that bill never would have passed. Republicans never would have supported that. It was crap,” said New Hampshire-based GOP strategist Dave Carney. 

“His point — his views matter, because he’s the heir apparent for the nomination, and that’s how it works,” Carney said. 

Yet, Trump has also influenced the physical contours of the GOP, namely weighing with his suggested picks to lead the RNC – North Carolina GOP Chairman Michael Whatley and Lara Logan, his daughter-in-law. 

“You wouldn’t be able to suggest the people that he has for RNC leadership positions and … not see any opposition if he didn’t have a hold, right?” Spicer noted.  

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