Orlando: Former president Donald Trump used his first public appearance since leaving office and moving to Florida to lash out at President Joe Biden and insist that there are no divisions within the Republican Party " even as he plots revenge on GOP lawmakers who have broken with him.
In an address on the closing day of the annual Conservative Political Action Conference on Sunday, Trump arrived at the venue an hour after he was scheduled to take the lectern.
"Do you miss me yet?" Trump asked the crowd. He talked about his "journey" with his supporters, adding, "It is far from being over."
"We will do what we've done right from the beginning, which is to win," Trump said. And despite having floated the idea with a few advisors, he went on to assert plainly: "I am not starting a new party."
Condemning Biden's performance and persisting in his false claims that voting fraud deprived him of victory in 2020, Trump declared, two months after his supporters violently breached the US Capitol, that Democrats "just lost the White House." He added, "I may even decide to beat them for a third time."
He veered off script repeatedly.
Trump's biggest applause lines came over his grievances. He criticised Dr Anthony Fauci, the infectious diseases expert who worked with the former president and who stayed on with Biden, and called for ending the coronavirus restrictions that have kept schools closed around the country. The issue of schools is one that Republicans have pressed repeatedly heading into the 2022 midterm elections, believing it gives them an edge.
At one point, Trump did something he never did as president " expressly called on people to take the coronavirus vaccines that he had pressed for and hoped would help him in his reelection effort. But he mocked Biden for stumbling during a CNN town hall event and attacked him over comments the president made about the number of vaccines available when he took office.
Backstage, before he spoke, an aide brought Trump a full-length mirror to gaze at how he looked. The former president held a small bottle of hair spray a few inches away from his chin and aimed it at his forehead. He swigged a Diet Coke before taking the stage.
While much of the party's rank-and-file remains devoted to the 74-year-old former president, he is viewed less favorably by some Republicans because of his refusal to accept defeat and his role in inciting the Capitol riot on 6 January.
A handful of GOP lawmakers have urged the party to move on from Trump, most prominently Representative Liz Cheney of Wyoming, the third-ranking House Republican.
In response, Trump's eldest son, Donald Trump Jr, repeatedly attacked Cheney in his remarks at CPAC on Friday, and the former president was expected to take aim at her himself Sunday.
Many of his advisors, however, were urging him to use his time onstage in Orlando to deliver a forward-looking address.
To this end, they also released an excerpt in which Trump would take on his successor in a manner almost identical to what he said about Biden when he himself was president, when he repeatedly told his supporters that Biden would destroy the country.
Ignoring that schools remained closed during his own presidency, Trump also planned to call on Biden to open schools "right now. No more special interest delays!"
How closely Trump would choose to follow a teleprompter script, though, was always an open question. And perhaps more so now that he has decamped from the White House to his resort in Palm Beach, Florida, stripped of his social media accounts.
His address was crafted by two of the former president's speechwriters in the White House, Ross Worthington and Vince Haley, with input from other advisors.
The former president's aides had been looking for an opportunity for him to reemerge and debated whether to put on a rally-type event of their own or take advantage of the forum of CPAC, which relocated to Trump's new home state from suburban Washington because Florida has more lenient coronavirus restrictions.
Trump and his aides worked with him on the speech for several days at his newly-built office above the ballroom at Mar-a-Lago, his private club near the Atlantic Ocean. Without his Twitter feed, Trump has been using specific moments in the news cycle " the death of radio host Rush Limbaugh and Tiger Woods' car crash " to inject himself into the news cycle.
Outside prepared statements, though, he has said far less since Jan. 20 about the future of the GOP and his own lingering ambitions.
Trump's advisors said he was not planning to discuss a litany of his own accomplishments, and instead would try to recapture some of how he sounded as a candidate in 2016. Trump has made clear to allies and advisors that, for now at least, he wants to run for president again in 2024.
Yet even with a built-in supportive audience, not everyone in the party believes that Trumpism is the way forward.
"CPAC is not the entirety of the Republican Party," Sen. Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, one of the seven Republican senators who voted to convict Trump on the House impeachment charges, said Sunday.
Speaking on CNN's State of the Union, Cassidy said that Republicans must pay heed to those voters who switched in the last four years. "If we speak to the voters who are less sure, who went from Trump to Biden, we win. If we don't, we lose," Cassidy said.
Jonathan Martin and Maggie Haberman c.2021 The New York Times Company