In a freewheeling speech with echoes of his campaign rallies, President Trump told a gathering of conservative activists Friday that the coalition of voters that narrowly put him in office represents the future of the Republican Party.
Trump gave a nod in particular to his largely white working-class supporters, calling them “the forgotten men and women of America” and reminding them that his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton, referred to some of them as “deplorables.”
“That is the heart of this new movement and the future of the Republican Party,” Trump said. “These are hardworking, great, great Americans. These are unbelievable people who have not been treated fairly. Hillary called them deplorable. They’re not deplorable.”
With his appearance at the Conservative Political Action Conference at National Harbor in Maryland, Trump became the first sitting president since Ronald Reagan to address the group during his first year in office.
Trump, who remains out of sync with the establishment wing of the party on trade and several other issues, was nevertheless enthusiastically embraced, a testament to how much he has pushed the GOP and the conservative movement toward an “America first” nationalism that previously existed on the fringes.
“Now you finally have a president, finally,” Trump told the group, whose annual conference he skipped last year while in the heart of his primary campaign. Later, he called his election “a win for conservative values.”
Friday’s speech amounted to a victory lap for Trump, and it was notable — more than a month after he got the keys to the White House — for how much it mimicked his campaign rallies.
The president ticked off a familiar list of promises, including pledges to “keep radical Islamic terrorists the hell out” of the country and to build a U.S.-Mexico border wall. At one point, when he mentioned Clinton, the crowd, as was often the case at his rallies, started chanting, “Lock her up!”
“The core conviction of our movement is that we are a nation that put and will put its own citizens first,” Trump said at another point, prompting the crowd to chant “U.S.A.! U.S.A.!”
While Trump was cheered on in suburban Maryland, other Republicans openly worried Friday about whether, in coming cycles, the party can hang onto the traditionally Democratic and independent voters Trump wooed, and they criticized him for doing little since his election to reach out beyond his core supporters.
Trump lost the popular vote to Clinton by nearly 3 million votes, and his job approval numbers are at historic lows for any president at this point in his term.
“We know historically that these sorts of populist, introverted efforts can be sustained for a couple of cycles and not much longer than that,” said John Weaver, a GOP strategist who worked on the presidential campaign of Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R).
“Fearmongering and the victimization of whole swaths of people is not something you can grow,” Weaver added, referring to derogatory comments Trump has made about Mexicans, Muslims and other groups. “Tell me which groups he’s going to attract. Millennials? African Americans? Hispanics? Young women?”
Former Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele said that the party needs to stay focused on expanding its base and that it remains to be seen how successful Trump will be at reshaping “a party of Reagan that no longer exists.”
A key, Steele said, will be what comes of Trump’s efforts to turn campaign promises into actual policy.
Trump’s fledgling administration has given conservatives plenty to cheer, including many of the president’s Cabinet selections and his pledges to repeal the Affordable Care Act and pursue sweeping tax reform.
He also campaigned on dismantling the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and other trade pacts long championed by Republicans, and on making a massive investment in the country’s infrastructure, a goal many small-government advocates in the GOP view warily.
Trump made only a passing reference to the latter initiative in his appearance Friday, during a portion of his speech in which he lamented how much money the United States has spent abroad.
“We’ve spent trillions of dollars overseas while allowing our own infrastructure to fall into total disrepair and decay,” Trump said. “In the Middle East we’ve spent, as of four weeks ago, $6 trillion. Think of it.”
As an aside, Trump offered his view that the Middle East is in “much worse shape” than it was 15 years ago. “If our presidents would have gone to the beach for 15 years, we would be in much better shape than we are right now, that I can tell you.”
While on script, Trump sought to portray his administration as one of action, listing steps it has already taken: pulling out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, reducing regulations, cracking down on illegal immigrants and clearing the way for construction of major oil pipelines.
He also touted his efforts to “massively lower taxes” and asserted that his presidency is already producing more jobs, saying it is time for all Americans to “get off welfare and get back to work.”
He pledged “one of the greatest military buildups in American history” and vowed to “totally obliterate” the Islamic State terrorist group.
“Nobody will dare question our military might again,” Trump said.
The president also reprised his core campaign promise of building a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border and said construction would begin soon, even though it remains unclear where the money to pay for it will come from.
“We’re going to build a wall, don’t worry about it,” the president said.
Trump also said that in a matter of days, he would have a “brand-new action” to keep the country safe, a reference to a second attempt at an executive order to restrict travel into the United States from several majority-Muslim nations.
“I will never, ever, ever apologize for protecting the safety and security of the American people,” Trump said.
After taking the stage at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center to Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the U.S.A,” Trump used the opening of his remarks to again denounce the media, saying many stories about his administration are “fake news” that relies on anonymous sources.
“A few days ago I called the fake news the enemy of the people,” the president said. “And they are. They are the enemy of the people.”
Trump pointed to a Washington Post story this month that cited nine current and former intelligence sources who said former national security adviser Michael Flynn discussed U.S. economic sanctions on Russia with that country’s ambassador before Trump took office.
Trump said he did not believe there were nine sources. “They make up sources. They are very dishonest people,” he said.
But The Post’s stories helped lead to Flynn’s resignation after further disclosures that he had misled administration officials, including Vice President Pence, about the nature of his conversations.
“We are fighting the fake news,” Trump said. “It’s fake, phony, fake.”
In a statement after Trump’s speech, Marty Baron, executive editor of The Post, stood by the story.
“Everything we published regarding Gen. Flynn was true, as confirmed by subsequent events and on-the-record statements from administration officials,” Baron said. “The story led directly to the general’s dismissal as national security adviser. Calling press reports fake doesn’t make them so.”
Trump’s speech Friday followed several well-received appearances at the four-day gathering by senior members of his administration, including a speech Thursday night by Pence.
The vice president touted the administration’s plans to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, declaring that “America’s Obamacare nightmare is about to end.”
Trump’s speech marked the fifth time he has addressed the conference, hosted by the American Conservative Union. His first appearance, in 2011, which was viewed as a curiosity at the time, offered clues to his political ambitions.
The “theory of a very successful person running for office is rarely tested because most successful people don’t want to be scrutinized or abused,” he said six years ago. “This is the kind of person that the country needs, and we need it now.”