WASHINGTON — Attempting to put a defining framework on his tumultuous first month in office, President Trump on Friday articulated a new vision for the Republican Party as a populist defender of the working class that will challenge elites at home and abroad.
Trump, speaking to hard-line GOP activists at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference, made it clear how much the world has changed for rank-and-file Republicans since his insurgent campaign upended the party.
At times, he promoted positions that could have been ripped from the playbook of liberals Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders.
“The GOP will be from now on the party also of the American worker,” Trump declared.
“First, we need to define what this great, great unprecedented movement is and what it actually represents,’’ he added. “The core conviction of our movement is that we are a nation that will put its own citizens first.”
In a wide-ranging, campaign-style speech, Trump bashed the media, and reiterated his promises for a massive buildup of the American military, the construction of a wall along the border with Mexico, and the renegotiation of trade deals.
He pointed to his administration's efforts to cut back regulations as a key way to promote job growth and protect workers. After his speech, Trump signed a new executive order requiring agencies to form regulatory reform task forces to assess additional ways to eliminate regulations.
The enthusiastic response to Trump’s speech marked a complete turnaround for the nation’s premier gathering of conservatives, which had once greeted him with skepticism.
At his first appearance at the conference in 2011, Trump walked out to the song “Money” and drew laughs and boos from the crowd. Last year, Trump declined an invitation to speak at the event. On Friday, he explained that absence by saying he worried his ideas would be “too controversial.”
But Friday’s remarks represented Trump’s attempt to recast the Republican Party — and the conservatives who represent its base — in his own image.
At one point, he said, “Now you finally have a president, finally,” and at another point, he said the Middle East is in “much worse shape than it was 15 years ago’’ — a timeframe that extends back to the presidency of Republican George W. Bush.
The crowd reveled in chants of “lock her up,” echoing last year’s campaign chants targeting Hillary Clinton, and “USA! USA!” underscoring Trump’s appeals to nationalism. White House counselor Kellyanne Conway’s joke earlier in the week that CPAC should be renamed “TPAC” in honor of the president seemed more fitting.
Trump’s appearance Friday was the first by a sitting president since Bush spoke in 2003 and the first by a president in his inaugural year in office since Ronald Reagan in 1981. In all, Reagan spoke at CPAC 13 times. Trump said he plans to make annual visits to the conference.
Vice President Mike Pence compared Trump to Reagan in his speech Thursday night. “I believe President Trump has given voice to aspirations and frustrations to Americans like no leader since Reagan,” he said.
In his own speech, Trump assailed the Affordable Care Act, blamed President Obama for leaving him with “a mess,” and promised to halt illegal immigration. But as he gears up to deliver a speech to a joint session of Congress on Tuesday, lawmakers are going to be looking for more specifics, including how to fund his proposals.
Meanwhile, Republicans in Congress are still trying to figure out exactly how to replace the federal health care law. They’re also dealing with the lingering backlash to Trump’s executive order on immigration, which sought to bar immigrants from seven majority-Muslim nations before it was halted by the courts.
Across the aisle, Democrats have been energized by the Trump administration, vowing to stall and prevent the president’s agenda at every chance they get.
Trump did not once mention his nomination of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court in his speech, a surprising omission given the choice was widely heralded by conservatives.
He did, however, deliver a blistering critique of the media, attacking “fake news” and journalists’ use of anonymous sources.
“It doesn’t represent the people, it never will represent the people, and we’re going to do something about it,” Trump said about the media. “Many of these groups are part of large media corporations that have their own agenda.’’
His attack on the media’s use of anonymous sources came less than an hour after White House officials held a background briefing — demanding anonymity — with journalists to dispute a CNN story.
CNN had reported that White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus asked the FBI to push back against media reports about communications between Trump aides and Russia during the 2016 presidential campaign.
The vision Trump outlined Friday was a less extreme version of the worldview expressed by Steve Bannon, the president’s chief strategist, who spoke Thursday about the “deconstruction of the administrative state.”
Bannon, making a rare public appearance, took the stage with Priebus and the two played down any conflict between them.
But, a day before Trump’s speech, attendees at CPAC on Thursday were still coming to grips with his new party and wrestling with questions of whether he is a true conservative.
Tyler Pager can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.