ORLANDO, Florida — Former President Donald Trump is affirming his commitment to the Republican Party but yanking the welcome mat from prominent Republicans opposed to his leadership, deepening a dilemma as the party heads into 2022.
In his return to the political spotlight with a speech to the Conservative Political Action Conference, Trump calmed Republican fears that he would start a new party in a rebuke of GOP House and Senate members who supported his second impeachment.
Nonetheless, the former president coupled that reassuring news for an anxious GOP with a warning to “Never Trump” incumbents that they may face serious primary challenges from Trump-backed candidates.
“Now, more than ever, is the time for tough, strong and energetic Republican leaders who have spines of steel. We need strong leadership,” Trump said. After he listed some of his establishment foes by name, the former president added that he hopes voters will “get rid of them all.”
Some political pundits have argued that Trump’s push to revamp the party by expunging his critics could cost the GOP in a midterm election season that is otherwise shaping up as a major opportunity to recapture a chamber of Congress. Fox News’s Steve Hilton raised the possibility in an interview with the former president after his address at CPAC.
“If [Republican National Committee Chairwoman] Ronna McDaniel, who it seems to me is doing a terrific job, says to you, ‘Look, a couple of the people that you may wanna support through primaries, you know, they’re really strong in their districts. We don’t want to take them out because then the seat might go to the Democrats,’ would you listen to her on that?”
“I would,” Trump responded, adding that he would listen to “a lot of people” if they came to him with similar advice.
During his first public speech since leaving the White House on Jan. 20, Trump also paid a backhanded compliment to the Democratic Party, saying he admired how they all stuck together.
“The Democrats don’t have grandstanders like [Sens.] Mitt Romney, little Ben Sasse, Richard Burr, Bill Cassidy, Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski, [and] Pat Toomey,” he said in his CPAC remarks, listing the seven Senate Republicans who voted to convict him on the House’s impeachment article charging him with inciting an insurrection.
Trump then listed, by name, the 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach him on Jan. 13, paying special attention to Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, whom he denounced as a “warmonger.”
“The good news is in her state she’s been censured, and in her state her poll numbers have dropped faster than any human being I’ve ever seen. Hopefully they’ll get rid of he in the next election,” Trump said, previewing a potentially difficult primary challenge in deeply Republican Wyoming.
In a video news conference after Trump’s speech, Rep. Adam Kinzinger, one of the targets of the former president’s condemnation, dismissed the attacks, further exposing the growing rift in the GOP.
“The speech was really surprising because I thought there’d be some new ideas,” Kinzinger said. “It really was just a recycled speech from the campaign. It was peppered with dishonesty.”