NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — President Trump received a hero’s welcome on Friday during his first appearance as president at the country’s largest gathering of conservative activists, declaring his movement is “the future of the Republican Party.”
In a sprawling, 48-minute address at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), Trump promised to follow through on his nationalist agenda while tossing out red meat to his supporters by escalating his attacks on the news media and his felled Democratic opponent, Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonGOP political operatives indicted over illegal campaign contribution from Russian national in 2016 Clinton lawyer's indictment reveals 'bag of tricks' Attorney charged in Durham investigation pleads not guilty MORE.
“Now you finally have a president, finally. Took you a long time,” Trump told the cheering crowd after taking the stage to Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the U.S.A.”
“It’s patriots like you that made it happen, believe me.”
It was a moment that appeared impossible just one year ago, when Trump skipped the annual conservative gathering as he came under fire from establishment Republicans for his controversial statements and breaks with conservative orthodoxy.
Just weeks before last year’s CPAC, the conservative National Review mounted a last-ditch effort to halt the business mogul’s campaign by publishing a special issue opposing him. The cover read “Against Trump.”
“I would have come last year, but I was worried I’d be, at the time, too controversial,” Trump said. “And people considered that controversial, but you didn’t consider that controversial.”
Trump became the first sitting president since Ronald Reagan to address CPAC in his first year in office. And he told the rallygoers he would be back next year.
“I love this place, love you people,” he said. “I wouldn’t miss a chance to talk to my friends, these are my friends. And we’ll see you again next year and the year after that.”
Trump’s victory in the 2016 election has pulled the modern conservative movement up from its Reagan-era roots.
In its place, Trump has planted the seeds of a protectionist trade policy and restrictions on immigration that are anathema to Reaganism. His overtures to private corporations have also drawn charges of crony capitalism from limited-government conservatives.
Those tensions were barely palpable inside the Grand Ballroom, however, as senior counselor Kellyanne Conway’s prediction that the convention would be "TPAC” once the president took the stage came to fruition.
Trump spent much of his campaign-style speech vowing to follow through on his promises to build a wall on the southern border, roll back regulations, build up the military, repeal ObamaCare and reorganize the nation’s “broken and embarrassing trade deals.”
“We have to turn things around. The era of empty talk is over; it's over,” he said to a thunderous ovation. “Now is the time for action.”
But in a sign of how much things have changed for conservatives, Trump singled out Clinton primary opponent Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersFranken targets senators from both parties in new comedy tour Pelosi says House members would not vote on spending bill top line higher than Senate's Groups push lawmakers to use defense bill to end support for Saudis in Yemen civil war MORE (I-Vt.), a self-described democratic socialist, for his stance on trade.
“Not that I'm a fan of Bernie, but a lot of Bernie people voted for Trump, you know why? Because he's right on one issue: trade,” the president said.
He also railed against “bloodsucker consultants” and “global” interests in a lengthy rejection of the political establishment. The comments echoed those made one day earlier by top aide Stephen Bannon, the intellectual force behind his presidency.
“There is no such thing as a global anthem, a global currency or a global flag,” Trump said. “This is the United States of America that I'm representing.”
Trump promised that “in a matter of days” he would issue a new executive action “to protect our people and keep America safe,” a reference to a replacement for his travel ban that was blocked by a federal court.
“I will never ever apologize for protecting the safety and security of the American people, I won't do it,” he said, drawing another ovation. “If it means I get bad press, if it means people speak badly of me, it's OK, doesn't bother me.”
The order restricting travel from seven Muslim-majority countries and temporarily barring refugees has been one of the most divisive actions Trump has taken, drawing fire from members of both parties.
He also failed to touch on many social issues, such as abortion rights and his decision to withdraw federal protections for transgender students, that have been common themes of past CPACs.
Trump also did not mention Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch, his most popular move thus far among Capitol Hill Republicans.
But Trump offered plenty of fodder to unite the CPAC crowd.
He opened his speech with a lengthy riff bashing the media, eliciting cheers from the audience and prompting some attendees standing behind the media section to shout “fake news.”
Trump’s relationship with the press during the campaign has become even more combative since he took office.
The president and his team have repeatedly chided reporters for stories using anonymous sources and have said they want to investigate the leaks coming out of his administration.
“I want you all to know that we are fighting the fake news. It’s phony, fake,” Trump said, to cheers. “I called the fake news the enemy of the people. They are the enemy of the people, because they have no sources. They just make them up when there are none.”
But Trump sought to differentiate between the press and “fake news media” and insisted that he can handle bad stories “if I deserve them” and that he honors the First Amendment.
“I love the First Amendment. Nobody loves it better than me. Who uses it more than I do?” Trump said to applause and laughter from the crowd.
Trump also turned to attack on Clinton, who shocked the political world by falling to Trump despite most public polls pointing to her victory.
He decried that Democrats’ presidential primary was rigged against Sanders and needled Clinton for labeling his supporters as a “basket of deplorables.”
CPAC attendees reprised the popular campaign chant, “Lock her up!” and a chorus of boos filled the large ballroom.
“That's the problem in politics. One wrong word and it's over. She also said you're irredeemable, but we won't mention it,” Trump said before returning to his focus on his core supporters.
“The forgotten men and women of America will be forgotten no longer. That is the heart of this new movement and the future of the Republican Party,” he said.