Conservatives’ Annual Conference to Toast Trump With Critics Out of Sight

WASHINGTON (The Washington Post) -

Thousands of conservative activists will converge on a Washington-area resort this week for their movement’s largest annual gathering — and more than ever, they’ll focus on what the Trump administration is doing right.

Both President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence will deliver speeches at the three-day Conservative Political Action Conference, on Friday morning and Thursday morning respectively. Half a dozen members of the administration will give remarks or sit for interviews, including White House counsel Donald McGahn and “the FCC’s courageous chairman,” Ajit Pai, as he’s identified in the agenda.

Conservative critics of the administration, and most members of Congress, will be elsewhere. Even more than in 2017, when Senate confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Neil M. Gorsuch raised Republican spirits, this year’s conference is structured as a celebration of GOP power and Trump-style nationalism. House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) won’t be there; neither will Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), a sometime CPAC speaker before he became a critic of Trump.

“There’s no question that there are still people opposed to Trump,” said Matt Schlapp, the president of the American Conservative Union, which organizes CPAC. “But it’s not 50/50 — on media they usually oversample the Trump critics. In all candor, most of those people, even if they don’t like Trump personally, have come to respect the fact that he’s governing on a conservative agenda.”

Like nearly every CPAC, the run-up has been marked by controversy. Dinesh D’Souza, an author who has promoted his work at previous conferences, won’t be speaking after the ACU called his tweet mocking students who have lobbied for gun control “indefensible.”

Wayne LaPierre, the fiery executive vice president of the National Rifle Association, will give his now-traditional speech; versions of the agenda put online this week left his name off, as a precaution against protests. On Wednesday, the conservative American Principles Project scrapped a panel on “suppression of conservative voices on social media” after the ACU barred Jim Hoft, the founder of the conspiracy-prone news site Gateway Pundit, from attending.

More controversial, among conservatives, is a prominent Thursday morning speaking slot — less than an hour after Pence — for Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, the youngest member of France’s far-right political dynasty. The announcement of Le Pen’s appearance made international news, in part because she had dramatically “quit” politics last year, and in part because her National Front party favors policies — universal health care, a lower retirement age — anathema to the U.S. conservative movement.

“I don’t see what makes Marion Le Pen a good representative of conservatism,” said Ben Shapiro, a conservative columnist, author, and sometime Trump critic who is speaking at CPAC. “I’m optimistic that young people are interested in conservatism, not just the faux philosophy of ‘nationalist populism.'”

Schlapp brushed off the controversy, saying that Le Pen, like Britain’s Nigel Farage, will give CPAC attendees a broader sense of what’s happening in conservative politics. Several panels and speakers, after all, will focus on the left’s perceived threats to free speech, on campus and elsewhere.

“I’m not personally close to her, but for three years in this job I’ve had people tell me that she represents a new voice in that country,” said Schlapp. “So we’re testing the waters, and we’re going to let her speak. I’m interested to hear her, but from who I’ve talked to and what I’ve read, she’s more aligned with conservatives than with her party.”

But in general, the conference will feature fewer debates about the movement than it has in past years. There are no sessions about immigration, a divisive topic in previous CPACs, especially when the ACU was led by Hispanic Republican activist Al Cardenas. (Cardenas declined to comment on this year’s conference.) The only scheduled talk on immigration policy will come from former Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke, as part of a Friday morning series called “We Refuse to Be Suckers: The New Trump Doctrine.”

The divide between libertarians and conservatives won’t be openly debated either, though there will be debates about illegal substance policy and government surveillance. For a decade, the libertarian movement represented in large part by Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and his father, former congressman Ron Paul, flooded the conference to vote in its straw poll and jeer some speakers. In 2011, some of them heckled former vice president Dick Cheney and held up antiwar signs near the main stage.

Neither Paul will attend this year’s conference, though 2016 Libertarian Party presidential candidate Gary Johnson will appear on a five-person panel about the benefits of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act. Matt Kibbe, a libertarian activist who led super PACs supporting both Johnson and Rand Paul, said that he was skipping the conference this year.

“It’s always had a Republican pep rally feel to it, and has never been a great place for a serious debate about what being a conservative actually means,” said Kibbe. “But this year feels like a caricature of even the old CPAC. Where it used to be a platform for the GOP establishment, now it’s just a Trump rally.”

Beyond Trump’s speech, there will be several CPAC panels defending the president from accusations of wrongdoing. The conservative Capital Research Center will lead two discussions for those who want to “learn more about the entire Russian investigation and how it remains unsubstantiated,” and one of the conference’s main-stage panels will bring conservative reporters together to discuss “unmasking the deep state.”

Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee who has argued that it should probe the Obama administration instead of Trump’s campaign, will give the conference’s closing address.

“Most of us believe we’ve wasted a year of our lives chasing down a story that has no basis in fact,” said Schlapp. “No, we’re not going to run down whether someone on the Trump campaign sent an email to someone with a Russian accent.”

But the relevance of issues and players can change quickly from year to year. In 2017, the headline event of CPAC was Schlapp’s joint interview with then-White House chief of staff Reince Priebus and then-strategist Steve Bannon, where two of Washington’s most powerful men discussed how the president would “dismantle the administrative state.”

By the autumn of 2017, neither man still worked at the White House. According to Schlapp, neither was invited to CPAC this year.