Politics: Republican leaders split while CPAC prepares to unite around Trump

Mike Pence declined an invitation to CPAC, where Trump is the headline guest and the MAGA crowd has taken over

  Mike Pence declined an invitation to CPAC, where Trump is the headline guest and the MAGA crowd has taken over The former vice president for the first time in years will not be attending the conference, where organizers have sided with former president Trump.The conference opens on Thursday in Orlando, Florida, and is one of the year's most important conservative political gatherings.

Jason Smith was, quite literally, caught in the middle of his party’s tug of war this week.

Donald Trump wearing a suit and tie: President Donald Trump greets the crowd after speaking at Conservative Political Action Conference, CPAC 2020, in Oxon Hill, Md., on Feb. 29, 2020. © Jose Luis Magana/AP Photo President Donald Trump greets the crowd after speaking at Conservative Political Action Conference, CPAC 2020, in Oxon Hill, Md., on Feb. 29, 2020.

The Missouri Republican lawmaker stood at the microphones alongside House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and GOP Conference Chair Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) for their weekly news conference, usually a staid affair where GOP leaders project unity before a dubious Capitol Hill press corps. Then Smith watched McCarthy and Cheney clash over Donald Trump's role in their party — all live on C-SPAN.

CPAC Highlights Trump's Influence Over GOP Amid Party's Civil War: 'He Owns That Crowd'

  CPAC Highlights Trump's Influence Over GOP Amid Party's Civil War: 'He Owns That Crowd' "The party apparatus from the state and local level to the national level has pretty much remained in control of Trump loyalists," Evan Siegfried, a Republican strategist and commentator, told Newsweek. He added, "Everybody at CPAC is beholden to him and he owns that crowd."GOP consultant Mark Weaver echoed that sentiment, telling Newsweek: "Among the Republican base there's still a lot of energy surrounding the Trump record and the Trump priorities, and the CPAC agenda that reflects that.

Should Trump be speaking at the upcoming Conservative Political Action Conference in Orlando? McCarthy offered an immediate "yes." Cheney said it’s up to CPAC, but then forcefully restated her position against the former president "playing a role in the future of the party, or the country."

Asked later if it was awkward to witness his leadership give such conflicting visions on Trump, Smith replied: “Hasn’t that been happening all year?"

The episode perfectly captured the civil war raging inside the not-so-post-Trump GOP. And those divisions will be on full display this weekend during CPAC, an annual party gathering where the action of late has become very much about one man — Donald John Trump — and very little about conservatism or policy or much of anything else.

CPAC or Trump-PAC? Conservative conference delegates stick with Donald Trump

  CPAC or Trump-PAC? Conservative conference delegates stick with Donald Trump Delegates to conservative political conference say they don't know if Trump will run again in 2024, but they would be fine with it.Roaming the convention space of a luxury hotel near Disney World, CPAC delegates wear Make America Great Again hats and display Trump pins. They pose for pictures beside a "Golden Trump," a fiberglass mold statue of the ex-president painted in gold, holding star-shaped wands and wearing a coat-and-loosened-tie, beach shorts in a U.S. flag motif and flip-flops.

McCarthy and House Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.), who have separately trekked to Mar-a-Lago to schmooze with Trump, are both slated to speak at the conference. So is Trump, in what will be his first public political speech since leaving office.

Not speaking: Cheney, who unapologetically voted to impeach Trump for his role in the Jan. 6 riots, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who didn’t vote to convict Trump but condemned him nonetheless and has cut off communication with the ex-president. Cheney did, however, speak at a Reagan Institute event this week, where she urged Republicans to "make clear we aren't the party of white supremacy” and called for any commission on Jan. 6 to look into Trump’s lies about the election.

Even before CPAC gets underway, the event is already showing how the top Republican leaders in Congress are making very different bets about the future of the GOP — and how it could be years before anyone finds out who is right.

Kevin McCarthy’s CPAC panel shows how the GOP has devolved into a Trump personality cult

  Kevin McCarthy’s CPAC panel shows how the GOP has devolved into a Trump personality cult McCarthy contorts himself to praise Trump, as Trump reportedly considers denouncing him anyway.McCarthy’s remarks in particular — and CPAC 2021 in general — illustrate how whatever second thoughts the Republican establishment had about Trump following the insurrection have fallen by the wayside. And they were a reminder that although Trump did lose reelection, he remains a popular, and therefore powerful, figure in the Republican Party.

In one camp, there are the Republicans like McCarthy and Scalise who have calculated that getting cozier with Trump and his base is the best way to boost the party’s prospects in the next election. In the other are establishment-minded pols like McConnell and Cheney, who counsel a more traditional brand of conservatism after the GOP lost both chambers of Congress and ultimately the White House under Trump.

Yet even McConnell — despite his reservations — told Fox News on Thursday that if Trump were the GOP presidential nominee in 2024, he would support him.

Rep. Chris Stewart (R-Utah) acknowledged that questions about the GOP’s identity are “clearly not settled yet.” But, he added: “the narrative that Republicans are fractured is greatly exaggerated.”

“Time is going to heal that,” he said, because “we’re united in the minority.”

For now, though, tensions are undoubtedly simmering as the party argues over its future. That includes a confrontation earlier this week involving freshman Rep. María Elvira Salazar (R-Fla.), who pushed back against former Trump aide Stephen Miller over his immigration views at a Republican Study Committee meeting. She made the case that the party needs to chart a different path in attracting Hispanic and Latino voters, while Miller has advocated for a hardline approach to curbing both illegal immigration as well as legal.

CPAC, all-in for Trump, is not what it used to be

  CPAC, all-in for Trump, is not what it used to be Differences, much less dissent, are verboten. Anything Trump dominates is a closed circle. In 2018 conservative columnist Mona Charen was escorted out of the building after she chastised Republicans for supporting sexual abusers, including Trump and Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore, who had been accused of assaulting teenaged girls.It's also become a big money machine. The CPAC website offered VIP access to "Gold" donors forking out $7,500 per ticket; just to watch routine proceedings cost $330 - and when I called, they offered me a "Platinum" package for $15,000.

Not to mention, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) has kept up her controversial antics, earning some rebukes from her colleagues this week for posting an anti-transgender sign outside her office amid a heated debate about a LGBTQ rights bill.

"This is sad and I'm sorry this happened. Rep. Newman's daughter is transgender," tweeted Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.), who noted that "this garbage must end" in order to restore the GOP. Greene's decision to antagonize Newman "represents the hate and fame driven politics of self-promotion at all evil costs," he wrote.

All of this is unfolding as Republicans were looking to move past the Cheney and Greene drama that consumed the party this month, when the GOP was forced to decide the fates of both GOP women. McCarthy maneuvered the party to stand by both: Cheney would keep her leadership post following an effort by conservatives to oust her, and Republicans wouldn’t kick Greene off her committees — though Democrats ultimately voted to do so.

But conservatives are now reviving their attacks on Cheney after this week’s press conference. The comments about Trump, while hardly new for Cheney, show how the party’s fissures can rip apart at any moment.

Rep. Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.), chairman of the ulta-conservative House Freedom Caucus, says he still wants Cheney to resign from leadership after he was asked about her latest remarks.

Trump Says GOP Is United While Attacking Republican Leaders in CPAC Speech

  Trump Says GOP Is United While Attacking Republican Leaders in CPAC Speech The former president listed every Republican who voted to impeach him and demanded to "get rid of them all."Trump's first major speech since leaving the White House blasted familiar targets including President Joe Biden, whom he described as senile, and warned of "socialist" Democratic policies taking over America. Trump also declared his opposition to starting a third political party and vowed to "continue to fight" alongside the GOP in the future. But Trump then turned his attention toward the "spineless establishment Republicans in Washington," whom he accused of failing to ensure an "honest election" last November.

“I don’t think it was appropriate at all,” Biggs told POLITICO. “It is consistent with the pattern she's shown the last four weeks where she is basically dissing the vast majority of Republicans … I think she’s not reading and understanding where the Republican Party is at right now.” Biggs warned that if Cheney continues to criticize Trump publicly, the party could “go through the whole same rigmarole again” in challenging her role in leadership.

Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), another close Trump ally, also tweeted after the Cheney-McCarthy presser: “President Trump is the leader of the Republican Party.”

Primary contests could be the next battlefield between the GOP’s warring factions. Last month, Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz, who has positioned himself as Trump’s enforcer within the party, flew all the way to Wyoming to campaign against Cheney. Patching in Donald Trump Jr. through a speaker phone, he criticized Cheney’s leadership, called for a “change at the top” and even mocked her father’s shooting skills.

Then in early February, after McCarthy defended his deputy in a closed-door conference meeting, Gaetz sought to shift the responsibility for Cheney’s apostasy to the GOP leader.

“Kevin put it all on the line for Liz. Every House Republican knows it,” he tweeted on Feb. 7.

While Cheney’s fiercest critics haven’t changed their minds, neither have her defenders.

“I have a tremendous amount of respect for Congresswoman Cheney,” said Rep. Peter Meijer (R-Mich.), the only GOP freshman who voted to impeach Trump. When asked about the revived Cheney criticism, Meijer replied: “Our conference already held a meeting and discussed this very subject. Asked and answered.”

As Donald Trump Asserts Dominance of GOP, Super PAC Launches to Shield His Republican Foes

  As Donald Trump Asserts Dominance of GOP, Super PAC Launches to Shield His Republican Foes The former president rejected the idea of setting up a rival third party and indicated his desire to have a sway over the Republican Party.Trump listed Republican representatives who voted to impeach him in the House and Senators who subsequently voted to convict him during his speech as he addressed the conference on Sunday, branding them "grandstanders.

Pro-Trump primary challenges, especially in critical swing districts, could imperil the House GOP’s efforts to win back the majority. And the targeting of Cheney in particular could put McCarthy in a bind — forcing him to choose between a member of his own leadership team, whom he vouched for, and the Trump wing of the party, whom he can’t afford to alienate.

McCarthy dodged repeated questions from POLITICO on Thursday about Cheney, while allies insisted they have a good working relationship. But he did touch on the topic during an interview on Fox News, saying “the idea a Republican would join cancel culture is wrong” when asked about her latest comments on Trump.

“I've got to bring people together,” McCarthy later added. “Yes, we've gone through a rocky time, but we've done that before.”

But at least one leader has vowed to jump to Cheney's defense: McConnell indicated during a POLITICO interview this month that he might get involved in her reelection campaign.

Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R-Texas), however, argued that the split in the party between the anti- and pro-Trump forces shouldn’t be so cut and dry: “Why do I have to choose?”

He also said it’s OK for Cheney and McCarthy to have different views on Trump. And to anyone in the conference who has a problem with that?

“Man up,” Crenshaw said.

CPAC was about more than Trump's cult — it's now cemented the GOP's authoritarianism .
Even scarier than Trump's personality cult — CPAC shows that Republicans' fascism deeper than Trump Tom Cotton, Josh Hawley, Ted Cruz and Paul Gosar Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images

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