About half an hour into his speech Saturday afternoon at the 48th annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), President Trump spotted a familiar face in the crowd. “My friend over there — you are the greatest,” the president said, and urged the man to stand. “Look at him … Does everybody know Jeffrey? Jeffrey Lord” (38:10).
The conservative audience responded with applause for The American Spectator’s longtime contributing editor. “What a great guy,” Trump continued. “He used to defend me on CNN, and then he defended me just a little bit too much. And they said, ‘Jeffrey, get the hell out.’ And thank goodness you’re on Fox now.… Thank you for being here, too, Jeffrey.”
Trump was in a relaxed and cheerful mood when he took the stage of the Potomac Ballroom at the Gaylord Hotel in National Harbor. Just before helicoptering over to CPAC on Marine One, the president had joined Vice President Mike Pence, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, and National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease Director Dr. Anthony Fauci at a White House press conference on the coronavirus. As with everything else in the Trump Age, this turned into a confrontation with the “fake news” media. An NBC reporter asked about a New York Times article that claimed Dr. Fauci had been “muzzled” by the administration. Trump responded that the question was “dishonest,” then yielded the microphone to Dr. Fauci. “I have never been muzzled, and I’ve been doing this since the administration of Ronald Reagan,” Dr. Fauci said, explaining that what happened involved scheduled TV appearances and the appointment of Pence to head the administration’s response to the disease that spread from China. “I have not been muzzled at all. That was a real misrepresentation of what happened.”
The press corps has shown its willingness to turn anything — including a potential public health crisis — into anti-Trump propaganda, and yet reporters complain that democracy itself is threatened when the president calls them out on their bias. The very words they use reveal the blatant partisanship of the press, as for example the phrase “lashed out,” which has been used in countless headlines to depict Trump as an angry man with a dangerous temper. Surely, during President Obama’s eight years in the White House, he must have “lashed out” occasionally, but the press seldom used that phrase to describe him. But Trump can never criticize anyone without it being portrayed as “lashing out.” No matter what the media might report, however, what Trump was doing Saturday at CPAC was having fun. There was the text of a speech queued up on the teleprompter screens, but Trump kept departing from the script to tell jokes, including a riff on one of Democratic rival Joe Biden’s recent gaffes.
“You know, he said the other night — this was really a beauty — Sleepy Joe, he said, ‘Guns have killed 150 million people in our country.’ And I’m watching. I said to your great First Lady — she’s doing a great job — I said, ‘First Lady … ’ ” Trump then went off on a tangent about calling his wife First Lady: “I like calling her ‘First Lady.’ I love calling her the First Lady. She said, ‘It’s okay. You can call me Melania.’ Good. Now, see, when I have fun like that, you know what’s going to happen tomorrow? It’ll be a headline. ‘He calls her First Lady.’ Because they’re dishonest people.” Then Trump digressed further, joking about his “Russia, if you’re listening” remark during the 2016 campaign before returning to the subject of Biden’s gaffe and his conversation with the First Lady;
I said to her, “Let me ask you this: Did he just say that we killed 150 million people? That’s half of our population. This is a terrible event. We have to find out what’s going on. This is bad.” This wasn’t reported by the fake news. It’s true. I said, “I’ve got to check that, First Lady, because you know what? If 150 million people were killed last year by guns — and they didn’t report the story.”
This was actually a clever riff, a two-carom bank shot of humor, poking fun at both Biden and the media, and it was also potentially newsworthy in that it revealed how confident the president is about his prospects of reelection. If Trump was really worried about any of the leading Democratic presidential rivals, would he be departing from the prepared text of his speech to be slinging jokes like this?
After going back on script to tout his administration’s economic record, Trump said, “We are actually achieving the progress, hope, and change that liberals have been falsely promising for decades but utterly failed to deliver or produce. And it’s really driving them crazy. That’s why we’ll probably end up with Crazy Bernie.” That would be Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, the self-proclaimed socialist candidate for the Democratic nomination. “We got some beauties,” Trump said of the Democratic primary field. “We got Sleepy Joe. We got Crazy Bernie. We got Mini Mike, but I think he’s out of it. I would like to spend $700 million and end up with nothing.”
Trump extended his riff about Mike Bloomberg, the ex-Republican billionaire and three-term New York City mayor who has spent massively for the upcoming “Super Tuesday” primaries: “That was probably the worst debate performance in the history of presidential debates.… He’s going to spend a lot of money. It just shows you that you can’t buy an election.… Boy, did Pocahontas destroy him.” Of course, this was a reference to Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, once a leading contender for the Democratic nomination, whose campaign gained a surplus of media coverage but failed in terms of actual votes. Trump laughed about the Warren–Bloomberg debate confrontation: “She was really mean to Mini Mike. I’ll tell you, the way she treated him, he didn’t know what hit him.” Then Trump did his imitation of Bloomberg, hunching down until his head was barely above the lectern: “Oh, get me off of this stage! Get me off! Get me off of this stage!”
The audience erupted in laughter and began chanting, “USA! USA! USA!” The chant then switched: “Four more years! Four more years! Four more years!”
Certainly the man on stage conveyed confidence that his conservative supporters will get those four more years. He spoke for more than an hour, showing remarkable stamina as he cracked jokes about the media and his Democratic rivals before finally returning to the script: “The American adventure has only just begun. With your help and the good Lord’s grace, we will continue to push onward to our nation’s magnificent destiny. We will continue to make our republic the inspiration, the glory, and the envy of the world. As long as we are confident in our values, loyal to our citizens, and faithful to our God, there is no limit to what we can achieve. The United States of America will always march on to victory.”
In the conclusion of his speech, Trump thanked Matt Schlapp, chairman of the American Conservative Union, which sponsors CPAC, and Schlapp’s wife, Mercedes, a former White House communications official who is now working on the president’s reelection campaign: “America is thriving like never before. And, ladies and gentlemen, the best is yet to come. I want to thank Matt, I want to thank Mercedes. I want to thank the great patriots of CPAC. God bless you. God bless America. And we will see you next year.”
Next year? If Trump wins in November and returns to the CPAC stage triumphant to begin his second term? Yeah, as the kids say, it’s going to be lit.