Trump says "this is the final battle" as he lays out grievances, 2024 agenda during CPAC speechget the free app
Fort Washington, Maryland — In his keynote address at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) Saturday evening, former President Donald Trump aired grievances with his familiar foes: President Biden, the Department of Justice, and the litany of legal fights he is embroiled in.
But Trump, now an official presidential candidate who is expected to see a crowded field of other challengers, also took subdued shots at his potential opponents, and argued that any GOP option that's not him represents an establishment "we're never going back to."
"This is the final battle," he said.
He also argued the experience of his first term is a plus: "Now I am experienced and I know the people of Washington."
"We'll appropriately deal with the RINOs," he said, referencing the moniker for "Republicans In Name Only." "We will never go back to the party of Paul Ryan, Karl Rove and Jeb Bush."
Rove held a donor conference in Austin, Texas, last week featuring several potential 2024 candidates, while Ryan, the 2012 GOP vice presidential nominee, has said he'll support "anybody but Trump" in the 2024 race.
Trump took note of how some Republicans, without naming them — such as his former Vice President Mike Pence, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, and Nikki Haley, former U.S. ambassador to the U.N. — have supported reforms to social security and medicare.
"We are never going back to the people that want to destroy our great social security system … even some in our own party, I wonder who that might be," he said.
On foreign policy, another issue that has divided Trump from other potential opponents, he repeatedly talked about preventing further U.S. intervention in wars, and claimed he "will prevent, very easily, World War III. And you're going to have World War III if something doesn't happen fast."
Trump frequently brought up the multiple subpoenas he's received regarding both his handling of classified documents found at his resort in Mar-a-Lago, to his role in the Jan. 6, 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol that was investigated by a House select committee.
Trump is also facing a civil lawsuit from New York Attorney General Letitia James, who alleges the former president and his business committed fraud by manipulating his property values to his benefit. He is also facing an investigation in Georgia over his attempts to overturn his loss in the state in the 2020 general election.
Trump called James and Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis, both of whom are Black women, as "racist."
"Every time the polls get higher and higher, the prosecutors get crazier and crazier," Trump said, joking that he didn't know the word "subpoena" until after he became president.
"They're not coming after me, they're coming after you, and that's why I'm standing here today. I'm standing before you because we're going to finish what we started. We're going to complete the mission," Trump, who launched his third bid for the presidency in November 2022, told the supportive CPAC crowd that frequently chanted "four more years!"
Trump also alleged he "won the second election," a continuation of his baseless claims that the 2020 election was stolen. The rhetoric has been cited by Republicans publicly as a reason for the party's lackluster performance in the 2022 midterm elections.
Election denial was somewhat of a theme among speakers at this year's CPAC, with failed Arizona gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake giving a keynote address on Friday night. Trump's former White House adviser, Steve Bannon, who led "Stop the Steal" efforts on Jan. 6, also was a featured speaker, and held live broadcasts of his Infowars show in the CPAC media row.
Trump added that, if elected, he would crack down on purported "out of control monsters" which he claimed were causing crime across the country. Trump suggested that the federal government should "take over control and management" of Washington, D.C., because of high crime rates.
Prior to his speech, Trump cleared the conference's straw poll — which CPAC says 2,000 attendees completed — with 62% of the vote. DeSantis, thought of as Trump's most formidable rival in part due to his history of fundraising and rankings in early polls on the primary, was second with 20% of the vote.
The event, which usually attracts a number of presidential hopefuls beginning to launch their campaigns, featured only the other two candidates who have declared their candidacy, Haley, and biotech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy. Among the major GOP figures mulling a bid, only former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo addressed the conference. Several of them skipped out on CPAC and instead appeared at a donor retreat in Palm Beach, Florida, hosted by the conservative group Club for Growth.
The absence of the other possible contenders did not escape Trump's notice. He posted on Truth Social Thursday, "The only reason certain 'candidates' won't be going to CPAC is because the crowds have no interest in anything they have to say. They've heard it all before, and don't want to hear it again."
The conference was filled with Trump allies and his former administration officials, both on the speaking lineup on the main stage, and in the numerous conservative media booths that line the hallways.
Before his keynote speech, Trump gave remarks to a private gathering at the conference with VIP donors and Republican figures, such as Lake, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia and conservative commentator and lawyer Mark Levin.
From outside the room, he was heard saying he gets a subpoena "every time I fly over a blue state."
Greene, who has already announced she's backing Trump, took questions from reporters Friday during which she criticized or dismissed Trump's official and potential presidential primary opponents, such as Haley or Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who did not attend the conference.
"It's nice that they're running, but they're not going to win," Greene predicted when she was asked about the Republican politicians who opted not to attend the conference.
Though he hasn't announced an official 2024 campaign yet, DeSantis is considered Trump's biggest threat in a primary. Trump and his campaign have already gone on the attack against the Florida governor he endorsed in 2018, regularly referring to him as "Ron DeSanctimonious" and running Facebook ads showing a photo of DeSantis and Trump with the caption: "Pictured: An Apprentice Learning from the Master."
DeSantis has glossed over Trump's criticism, and in a recent Fox News interview pointed to Trump's 2018 support for him.
"Then I win a big victory and all of a sudden, you know, he had different opinions, and so you can take that for what it's worth," DeSantis told Fox News on Tuesday..
"I mean, he's obviously a big, big fish, but I get attacked all the time from every different angle and you either put points on the board or you don't. And so I just focus on delivering the wins. And I think we've done a pretty good job of following through on our promises," DeSantis added.
Haley, who spoke at CPAC on Friday and was greeted with chants of "Trump! Trump! Trump!" by his supporters as she was leaving the conference, took some shots at the former president during her remarks to the Club for Growth donor retreat on Saturday.
"The last two Republican presidents added more than $10 trillion to the national debt. Think about that. A third of our debt happened under just two Republicans," said Haley, who has argued she represents the generational change needed for the party. "If we nominate another big spender in 2024, we're going to lose."
Laura Thilman, a Republican voter from Arizona, said while "it's way too early" to pick a presidential primary candidate, she'd vote for Trump "if I had to vote today."
"We need a president that's going to come in and hit the ground running," she said. "But here's the deal, the best man wins. I'm not clairvoyant, I don't know who that could be yet."