- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 26, 2020

President Trump heads into the Conservative Political Action Conference this week enjoying some of the best approval ratings of his presidency and poised to get a major shot in the arm from thousands of conservative activists, who are working overtime to air Mr. Trump’s grievances and excommunicate Republicans who step out of line.

Fresh off a trip to India and dealing with the escalating coronavirus outbreak, Mr. Trump will be back in his comfort zone when he closes out the annual conservative conference Saturday with adulation from cheering supporters as his would-be Democratic opponents tear each other apart for the right to face him in November.

“If the roof is still on the Gaylord Center when we leave, I might be surprised,” said Charlie Gerow, a top official with the American Conservative Union, which puts on the annual gathering in suburban Maryland. “I think you will see an enthusiasm level at CPAC unparalleled in our history — I really do.”

Alan Gottlieb said that even though he’s an ACU board member, he’s staying in nearby Alexandria, Virginia, because demand for rooms was so high.

He doubted that everyone who wants to see Mr. Trump speak will be physically able to get into the room.

“As soon as possible, those lines are going to be around the block, so to speak. I’m kind of ecstatic about it,” said Mr. Gottlieb, founder of the Second Amendment Foundation.

Mr. Trump has made appearances at CPAC over the years but had been viewed somewhat skeptically by the younger, more libertarian-leaning crowd before he took office in 2017. He even got booed one year when he took a shot at former Republican Rep. Ron Paul.

In 2016, he skipped the event entirely in the midst of the presidential race when there was a dispute over his speaking slot.

But since the 2016 election, Mr. Trump’s takeover of the Republican Party and the conservative movement is no more evident than at CPAC, which now serves as an annual pep rally for Mr. Trump, engineered by supporters made Washington-famous during his administration.

Last year, he delivered a stemwinding speech fresh off a summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un that clocked in at more than two hours. Mr. Trump kicked it off by embracing an American flag onstage.

“Last year, Trump was amazing at CPAC,” Mr. Gottlieb said. “I mean, nobody’s ever going to forget just the picture of him holding the American flag when he first walked out. It was electrifying.”

In addition to Mr. Trump, this year’s event is set to feature appearances from a host of administration officials, including Vice President Mike Pence, White House counselor Kellyanne Conway, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

Attendees also will hear from the people who are instrumental to Mr. Trump’s reelection campaign, including campaign manager Brad Parscale, former White House spokeswoman Mercedes Schlapp, and Donald Trump Jr. and Kimberly Guilfoyle, one of the new power couples in Mr. Trump’s Washington.

But the event won attention last month when ACU Chairman Matt Schlapp publicly announced that Sen. Mitt Romney would not be invited, after the Utah Republican crossed the president to vote in support of witness testimony in Mr. Trump’s impeachment trial.

Mr. Romney ended up being the only Republican in the Senate who voted to convict Mr. Trump on one of the two impeachment articles — abuse of power — although both articles failed.

Mr. Schlapp said he would fear for Mr. Romney’s safety at the event, and Mr. Gerow said it was absolutely the right move.

“I can tell you that the attendees are applauding it full-throated,” he said.

Appearing at CPAC has become essentially a requirement for Republicans running for president or eyeing a White House bid. Mr. Romney, the Republicans’ 2012 presidential nominee, has not appeared at the conference since 2013.

Mr. Romney’s office declined to comment on the “disinvitation.”

The conference also will feature a multipart program on “The Coup,” a reference to the probe of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential campaign and the Democratic response that culminated in impeachment.

That part of the program will include appearances from Mr. Trump’s top defenders in Congress on the Russia and Ukraine issues.

They include Reps. Doug Collins of Georgia and Devin Nunes of California, the top Republicans on the House Judiciary and Intelligence committees, respectively, as well as conservative Reps. Jim Jordan of Ohio and Mark Meadows of North Carolina.

CPAC also will feature a play with actors Dean Cain and Kristy Swanson called “FBI Lovebirds: UnderCovers,” which is based on the derogatory text messages about Mr. Trump exchanged by former FBI officials Peter Strzok and Lisa Page, as well as their testimony from congressional hearings.

The president and his allies have pointed to the FBI’s probe of Russian interference in the 2016 campaign as proof of a deep state “coup” working against him. He has frequently targeted Mr. Strzok and Ms. Page as prime offenders.

Mr. Romney’s disinvitation and the lineup of speakers exemplify the extent to which members of the “Never Trump” movement and Republicans willing to publicly cross the president have become less prominent in recent years.

Terry Schilling, another ACU board member, said the “Never Trump elite conservative movement” “has never been less relevant.”

“Of course CPAC is going to be supportive of President Trump because the conservative movement is supportive of President Trump,” said Mr. Schilling, executive director of the American Principles Project. “Sure, there are these elitist conservatives who are part of the Never Trump movement, but they’re failing right now.”

Mr. Schilling said CPAC has become more serious about having policy discussions in recent years and that he’s looking forward to a panel on Big Tech and the government’s role in protecting people’s civil rights online.

“What CPAC is doing is just recognizing where the conservative movement as a whole is heading and where the country is heading, and these guys are just lagging behind everyone else,” Mr. Schilling said.

Donald Trump Jr., with House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri, are scheduled to participate in a panel called “What’s the Right Path Forward on Big Tech?” Friday morning.

Other scheduled discussions include “Socialism: Wrecker of Nations and Destroyer of Societies,” “Everything You Wanted to Know About Russiagate but Were Afraid to Ask,” and “Rampaging through America: The Left’s Takeover of Our Culture.”

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