NATIONAL HARBOR, Maryland—Come Saturday afternoon, President Donald Trump had endured a long week of failure and embarrassment. His high-profile summit with Kim Jong Un in Vietnam didn’t result in any discernible breakthrough in denuclearization efforts—though he did manage to outrage the family of an American university student whom the North Korean dictator’s regime essentially tortured to death.
Stateside, Trump’s lawyers and surrogates were left to run damage control over the congressional testimony of the president’s former fixer and lawyer, Michael Cohen, who spent Wednesday publicly accusing his old boss of rampant corruption, racism, and destruction of the republic.
And the president’s Republican allies on Capitol Hill telegraphed increasing signs of a coming defection on Trump’s declared national emergency in a strong-arm effort to build his promised wall on the southern border.
But on Saturday, President Trump and his motorcade arrived at the 2019 Conservative Political Action Conference to spin the past week, and the last two years, as an unqualified triumph, greeted by attendees and adoring fans as a hero and titan political operator.
Matt Schlapp, American Conservative Union chair and Trump surrogate, praised Trump in his introduction of the president for having “walked away” from North Korea negotiations this week.
As he took the baton, President Trump kicked things off to a jubilant crowd, riffing on one of his favorite topics: winning the 2016 presidential contest—the “election with a capital ‘E,’” he called it, before lavishing praise on his base and insisting that for the 2020 election, history will repeat itself.
He quickly moved on to blasting the “blunders and betrayals”—the “serious, serious betrayals”—that his administration has worked to reverse: treacherous policy enacted over the decades by a “failed ruling class that enriched foreign countries at our expense,” in trade and other arenas.
“Those days are over, long over,” Trump stressed to roaring applause and cheers.
Both the crowd and the headliners helped prop him up as a savior, week-from-hell be damned. Numerous panelists and main stage speakers, including Vice President Mike Pence and former Trump aide Seb Gorka, at this year’s CPAC were more than happy to paint President Trump as the one man standing between the American voter and oppressive socialism.
And Trump relished the rah-rah, jumping in on the fun, bashing the “socialist takeover” of healthcare and energy that some progressive lawmakers have embraced.
“You know I’m totally off-script right now?” Trump said, smirking. He then delivered the biggest applause line of the young afternoon simply by talking about the election he won over two years ago: “This is how I got elected, by being off-script. And if we don’t go off-script, our country is in big trouble, folks.”
The president blasted “the New Green Deal, or whatever the hell they call it,” and said he loved that Democratic lawmakers were boosting it. “They should promote,” he mocked. “Never change.”
He ribbed media outlets for reporting that “he asked Russia to go get the emails” during the 2016 election interference and hacking, claiming he was just kidding and having a good time at a 2016 campaign stop. “These people are sick,” Trump said, as he told them that news outlets, such as his preferred foe and cable-news foil CNN, are playing “the game” in ways that are “dirtier than it’s ever been played” before.
In most ways, it was just another campaign rally for the president, in flavor, content, and punchlines.
He went after his enemies on Capitol Hill and federal investigators, such as “Little Shifty Schiff” (one of his nicknames for Democratic congressman and House Intelligence Chair Adam Schiff), for talking about how they are “gonna check his deals” and investigate his business empire. “These people are sick,” Trump said again. All of sudden, Trump vented, his enemies are “trying to take [me] out with bullshit!”
The CPAC attendees gobbled it up, howling with laughter and applause, with many standing in ovation. Chunks of the crowd then broke out into an ecstatic chant of, “Bullshit, bullshit, bullshit, bullshit, bullshit!!!!...”
“No obstruction,” Trump claimed, as he railed against common targets like Special Counsel Robert Mueller and his team, his “weak and ineffective” former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign chairman John Podesta (whom the president mocked for getting his “ass kicked” in the presidential election), and fired FBI director and “dirty cop” James Comey, recounting a conversation he said he had with first lady Melania Trump about why it might be a popular, “bipartisan” move to can him in 2017.
Trump claimed that he had already successfully “destroyed” senator and 2020 Democratic presidential contender Elizabeth Warren’s career and political future. He also knocked Washington Post political reporter “David Weigel” for posting a misleading “empty-arena” tweet about a Trump rally. “I don’t follow the guy” on Twitter, Trump said of Weigel, before ribbing the reporter for not flying private.
President Trump also made sure to pay tribute to “TiVo,” and remarked how his TV set would be useless without the marvelous invention.
The rest of the speech was a characteristically Trumpian stream-of-consciousness and rambling showmanship. He cheered on what he and his administration’s Obamacare rollbacks, his inauguration crowd size, the jobs numbers, the “federal judges,” and his trade and draconian immigration policies. He slammed statistics on comparatively lower crime rates among undocumented immigrants as “false propaganda,” and denounced Democrats for wanting to “execute” babies.
He fumed about the “endless wars” in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, and talked about how he often learned more from soldiers on the ground in war zones than from the generals commanding them.
He repeatedly commended some of the military personnel he’s met as exceptionally, Hollywood-grade handsome—straight out of “central casting.”
He praised some of his preferred allies such as radio host Mark Levin, Rep. Mark Meadows, Schlapp, his wife Mercedes Schlapp, who also serves Trump as a senior White House official. He complimented the “beautiful-looking machine guns” his Secret Service detail brandish while protecting him.
He invited Hayden Williams, a Leadership Institute field representative who was caught on video getting punched at UC Berkeley campus, and assured the audience that “he’s going to be a very wealthy man” soon, and encouraged Williams to sue not just the assailant but also Berkeley.
And he made some fun of the conservative “Never Trumpers” who are “hanging in” there and need “mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.”
But for all the swagger, Trump couldn’t help but drop hints of anxiety this week, openly pondering how maybe everything wasn’t really going his way. “I hope our great Republican Senators don’t get led down the path of weak and ineffective Border Security,” he tweeted earlier in the week, then retweeted on Saturday morning. “Be strong and smart, don’t fall into the Democrats ‘trap’ of Open Borders and Crime!”
He, of course, also obsessed over the “rat,” in Trump’s words, in his midst, throwing out a baseless theory, to boot.
“Michael Cohen’s book manuscript shows that he committed perjury on a scale not seen before,” the president rage-tweeted on Friday morning. “He must have forgotten about his book when he testified. What does Hillary Clinton’s lawyer, Lanny Davis, say about this one. Is he being paid by Crooked Hillary. Using her lawyer?”
But none of this mattered to the president this weekend, at least not to the version of him who showed up on-stage. And he was in a good enough mood to hang around for a roughly two-hour speech. Originally, he was slated to speak for less than an hour.
“We’re in the swamp,” Trump told the lustily cheering and chanting audience at this year’s CPAC. “But we’re winning, and they’re not.”
As he wrapped up his speech, and before The Rolling Stones song “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” played on the loudspeakers, Trump bragged how nobody had left the room early before he finished talking. Trump said this literally as as a fairly long, conspicuous procession of attendees and students had been filing out of the room early. Several attendees directly behind the press pen started laughing at the juxtaposition.