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A day before he speaks, Conservative gathering is mostly about Trump

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who faulted the former president for his role in the attack and at one point considered asking him to resign, credited Trump at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference with helping Republicans with their surprise gains in the House last year.

By: New York Times | Orlando |
February 28, 2021 11:51:13 am
A customer purchases an American flag purse from a vendor at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Orlando, Fla., on Saturday, Feb. 27, 2021. (Photo: Erin Schaff/The New York Times)

Written by Jonathan Martin

A pair of influential House Republicans used a conservative political gathering Saturday to lavish praise on former President Donald Trump and, in ways subtle and direct, marginalize their GOP colleagues who have distanced themselves from Trump in the aftermath of the Capitol riot last month.

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House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who faulted the former president for his role in the attack and at one point considered asking him to resign, credited Trump at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference with helping Republicans with their surprise gains in the House last year.

“You know why we won that?” McCarthy asked of the 14 seats the GOP claimed in 2020. “President Trump worked on all these races.” He also recalled how Trump, even when in quarantine after his coronavirus diagnosis, would do “rallies over the phone for each district.”

The top House Republican sat onstage alongside Rep. Jim Banks of Indiana, an emerging conservative leader who answered a question aimed at minimizing the party’s internal fractures by drawing attention to them.

Banks highlighted McCarthy’s popularity before pointedly noting that “the least popular” congressional Republicans “are the ones who want to erase Donald Trump and Donald Trump supporters from our party.”

If that happens, he continued, “we won’t win back the majority in 2022 — we definitely won’t win back the White House in 2024.”

Neither lawmaker mentioned Rep. Liz Cheney, the third-ranking House Republican. But their unprompted rhetorical embrace of the former president illustrated how little appetite there is among Cheney’s colleagues for cutting ties with Trump, as she has urged.

In fact, McCarthy’s joint appearance with Banks was something of a brushback pitch at Cheney, who earlier in the week restated her hope that Republicans would move on from Trump just moments after McCarthy had said the former president should attend this conference.

The Indiana Republican, who heads the conservative Republican Study Group, has sought to take a more prominent role in the caucus following Cheney’s break with Trump. On Saturday, McCarthy hailed Banks as “an amazing individual” shortly before he assailed the anti-Trump Republicans in their ranks.

In the weeks since he criticized Trump over the deadly Jan. 6 attack, McCarthy has scrambled to patch up his relationship with the former president, visiting him at his home in Florida and welcoming him to play a continued role in the party.

Yet he has not proved able to dissuade Trump from mounting a revenge campaign against those Republicans who voted to impeach him last month — a fact made vividly clear Friday when the former president endorsed a challenger against Rep. Anthony Gonzalez of Ohio, one of the 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach Trump over the Capitol attack.

Trump has also been irritated at McCarthy, as first reported by Politico, for helping Cheney beat back an effort by the former president’s loyalists to depose her from her position in the House leadership.

For all the ongoing intraparty drama, however, McCarthy projected confidence that Republicans would reclaim the House majority next year, stating, “I would bet my house” on such an outcome.

After much of the first day of the conference was devoted to slamming Big Tech companies and “cancel culture,” the House GOP leader and a bevy of his colleagues used the Saturday session to sketch out their opposition to the $1.9 trillion COVID relief bill House Democrats passed on a party-line vote overnight.

They sought to link the rising conservative anger toward social media giants with the aid measure.

“She put a tunnel in Silicon Valley that has nothing to do with COVID into the bill,” McCarthy said of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, alluding to funds in the proposal to extend a subway in San Jose, California.

One day after speeches by a series of senators thought to be eyeing 2024 presidential runs, and the day before Trump’s address, two more potential candidates were warmly received by the conservative crowd: former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Gov. Kristi Noem of South Dakota.

Pompeo assailed President Joe Biden and recalled what he said were the foreign policy successes of the Trump administration.

“So how many of you remember Qassem Soleimani?” Pompeo said of the Iranian leader killed by U.S. forces on Trump’s orders. “Allah rest his soul.”

Drawing more attention, and applause, was Noem. Before she spoke, dozens of CPAC attendees, many of them young Republicans, waited in line to get her autograph.

Noem has developed a national conservative following for her frequent appearances on Fox News and her refusal to take steps to curb the spread of the coronavirus in South Dakota, even as the state has experienced some of the highest rates of death in the country from the virus.

However, nearly a year into the outbreak, and after months of business and school shutdowns, many conservative activists are eager to return to pre-COVID life.

The governor drew some of the loudest applause of any speaker at the conference when she belittled Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert and a figure many on the right consider overly alarmist.

“I don’t know if you agree with me, but Dr. Fauci is wrong a lot,” said Noem, bringing hundreds of attendees to their feet.

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