Donald Trump will reportedly tell the Conservative Political Action Conference in Florida this week he is Republicans’ “presumptive 2024 nominee” for president.
Trump will address CPAC on Sunday, his subject the future of the party he took over in the 2016 primary then led from the White House through four tumultuous years. On Monday, citing anonymous sources, the news site Axios reported his plan to assume the mantle of challenger to Joe Biden – or another Democrat, should the 78-year-old president decide not to run for a second term.
An unnamed “longtime adviser” was quoted as saying Trump’s speech to the rightwing event will be a “show of force” with the message: “I may not have Twitter or the Oval Office, but I’m still in charge.”
A named source, close adviser Jason Miller, said: “Trump effectively is the Republican party. The only chasm is between Beltway insiders and grass-roots Republicans around the country. When you attack President Trump, you’re attacking the Republican grass roots.”
Thousands have left the party since the Capitol riot of 6 January, which Trump incited in his attempt to overturn an election defeat he has not conceded, and in which five people including a police officer died. Trump lost his Twitter account, his favoured means of communication throughout his time in office, and access to other social media over his lies and inflammatory behaviour before, during and after the attack on Congress.
Polling of Republicans who have not left the party, however, shows the former president with a clear lead over a range of potential 2024 candidates, supportive of him or not, in a notional primary.
Ten members of the House voted to impeach Trump a second time over the Capitol attack and seven senators voted with Democrats to convict. That was short by 10 votes of the majority needed but it made it the most bipartisan impeachment ever.
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell voted to acquit but then turned on Trump, branding him responsible for events at the Capitol. But House leaders have not followed suit, as they deal with vocal extremists in their caucus and the loyal party base.
As Trump lashed out at McConnell, calling him “a dour, sullen and unsmiling political hack”, so Republicans in the House and Senate who turned against Trump have been censured by state parties and reported vitriol aimed their way from the grassroots – and even family members.
Trump’s grip on his party is clear. New polling from Suffolk University and USA Today showed 46% of Trump voters would follow him if he formed his own party while 42% said his impeachment had strengthened their support. The same poll said 58% of Trump voters subscribed to an outright conspiracy theory: that the Capitol riot was “mostly a [leftwing] antifa-inspired attack that only involved a few Trump supporters”.
In reality, many of more than 250 individuals charged over the attack have been found to have links to far-right groups.
On Sunday a key member of House leadership, Steve Scalise, repeatedly refused to say Trump lost the election or bore responsibility for the Capitol breach.
The former Republican strategist Stuart Stevens said Scalise was “saying that America isn’t a democracy. That’s become the new standard of the Republican party. Not since 1860s has a large part of the country refused to accept election. The Republican party is an anti-democratic force”.
Scalise also told ABC News he had visited Trump at Mar-a-Lago, his Florida resort.
“I noticed he was a lot more relaxed than in his four years in the White House,” he said. “He still cares a lot about this country and the direction of our country. But, you know, it was a conversation more about how he’s doing now and what he’s … planning on doing and how his family is doing.”
Axios cited an unnamed source as saying some potential 2024 contenders have sought Trump’s endorsement. It also noted that the former president, who would be 78 on election day and faces considerable legal threats now he has left office, may be planning to string the party along but ultimately not to run.
Funds raised around Trump’s lie about his clear election defeat by Joe Biden being the result of fraud may be ploughed into funding primaries against those who have crossed him.
Either way, CPAC has obligingly moved close by, from its usual venue in Maryland. Party moderates and figures who have criticised Trump, among them Maryland governor Larry Hogan and former South Carolina governor and United Nations ambassador Nikki Haley, have not been invited to speak. Mike Pence, the vice-president whose life was placed in danger during the Capitol attack, reportedly turned down an invitation.
Crowds at the conservative event were initially suspicious of Trump when he emerged on the national Republican scene, but came to embrace his flag-hugging displays with evangelical fervour.
Axios’s source reportedly said: “Much like 2016, we’re taking on Washington again.”