DALLAS — Former President Donald Trump ticked through his grievances Sunday as he spoke to a conservative gathering here: his media coverage, his ban by social media companies, the Republican lawmakers who have broken ranks to criticize him.
But over and over again, Trump came back to one enduring complaint: his false claim that the 2020 election was stolen.
“The entire system was rigged against the American people and rigged against a fair, decent and honest election,” he said before a roaring crowd that filled the better part of a 3,300-seat ballroom and welcomed Trump with “Make America Great Again” hats waved in the air.
The resonance of Trump’s relentless attacks on the integrity of the 2020 vote was starkly clear at this weekend’s Conservative Political Action Conference, which was saturated with references to the “big lie” and alternate tellings of the Jan. 6 storming of the U.S. Capitol by a pro-Trump mob that interrupted Congress’s formal recognition of President Joe Biden’s win.
In between sessions on school board activism and Big Tech, speakers stoked doubts about the vote, with Rep. Ronny Jackson, R-Texas, suggesting Republicans need to notch overwhelming wins so that cheaters “won’t be able to do what they did last time.” Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas, declared from the main stage that he was suspicious that congressional security officials resisted an early request to station National Guard troops at the Capitol for the Jan. 6 proceedings.
“You think they were setting things up?” Gohmert asked.
“Yeah!” the crowd yelled back.
“Well, I do,” Gohmert said. ” … What percentage does it take of federal agents to make it a government conspiracy? This has got to stop! We need to know.”
Attendees spoke of election “audits” that are about to uncover the truth, and some blamed the police response or leftist agitators for the destruction and violence on Jan. 6. “The Democrats knew that that was going to happen and they did it to make Trump look bad,” said Debbie Billingsly, a 67-year-old Texan who said she and her husband came to their first CPAC because they want to ensure Trump is reelected and believe it is “a critical time right now for the country.”
Though more than 100 law enforcement officers were injured in the Jan. 6 riot, she said the only violence of the day came when police fatally shot Ashli Babbitt — increasingly cast as a martyr by some Trump supporters — as the woman tried to climb through the broken window of a Capitol door.
Throughout the halls of the Dallas hotel conference center, there were signs that Trump’s false claim that the election was rigged is a central animating force on the right — one fueling extreme views. The leader of a group whose members were charged with conspiracy in the Capitol riot strolled the conference halls; a booth sold QAnon shirts referencing the extremist ideology based on false claims that has taken hold among Trump supporters; and a man passed out cards detailing a “7-PT. PLAN TO RESTORE DONALD J. TRUMP IN DAYS, NOT YEARS.”
CPAC leaders said the conference is not defined by Trump and dismissed some of the baseless theories circulated during the gathering as fringe views unrepresentative of their movement, echoing attendees who said they should not be judged by others’ words and actions. They said they were focused on fighting the political left, standing up to “cancel culture” and enacting a conservative agenda.
They also defended those who still question the integrity of an election upheld by officials, audits and dozens of judges. There is no evidence of widespread fraud in the 2020 vote, but such doubts have become mainstream on the right, with June polling finding 63 percent of those who identify as or lean Republican believe President Biden won only because of fraud.
“Every election has problems,” said Dan Schneider, executive director of the American Conservative Union (ACU), which hosts the conference that is typically held annually. “This election’s unprecedented in the number of unsolicited mail-in ballots that flooded the nation … So what does that lead to?” Clips of ACU Chairman Matt Schlapp pressing those concerns in TV interviews played Sunday afternoon on big screens around the conference stage.
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, R, who unsuccessfully sued over the results in key states and last week ordered the arrest of a man on charges that he voted in 2020 while on parole, pledged Sunday to keep fighting election fraud. He told the audience that his office has more than 500 counts waiting to be heard in court and more under investigation. A video introduced Paxton as a man both “supported by Texans” and “respected by Donald Trump.”
CPAC was not always full of Trump devotees. As a presidential candidate in 2016, Trump canceled an appearance at the gathering at the last minute ahead of an expected protest by conservative activists. But by 2017, with Trump in office, his adviser Kellyanne Conway declared the conference “TPAC.”
Conference leaders reject that label, and this year’s programming focused on conservative backlash to the events of the past year — with speakers decrying pandemic shutdowns, critical race theory in schools and what Schlapp describes as “cultural trends of woke-ism.” They spoke about American values under attack and a country unfairly painted as racist.
A number of prominent GOP politicians discussed as potential 2024 candidates did not attend, including Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, R, who spoke at CPAC’s gathering in Orlando in February. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, R, was also absent. His spokesman said he was busy with a special session of the state legislature, where Republicans have renewed their efforts to pass voting restrictions. Schlapp said organizers knew the timing of the conference, right after the July Fourth holiday, would make it difficult for some lawmakers to attend.
A straw poll of the conference found nearly unanimous approval for Trump, with 70 percent of respondents saying they would pick him in the 2024 Republican presidential primary.
“There is really no distinction between the Trump movement and CPAC,” said a Texas-based Republican political consultant who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he did not want to jeopardize his career. He said he voted for Trump in 2020 but no longer goes to CPAC because room for dissent with the former president seems so slim.
Inside the conference, the audience appeared to have a voracious appetite to rehash the 2020 presidential race. This weekend’s gathering featured fewer election fraud sessions than the last CPAC event in Orlando, but voter ID and “election integrity” were among the top three concerns of those in attendance, according to Sunday’s straw poll.
During his address to the crowd Friday, Donald Trump Jr. drew raucous laughs as he criticized White House chief medical adviser Anthony Fauci and President Biden. But some of the night’s longest, most thunderous applause came when a woman in the audience interrupted to yell, “Trump won!”
A standing ovation ensued for nearly a minute. The former president’s son grinned, nodding, and the crowd broke into a chant.
“Trump! Trump! Trump!”
When Jackson, who served as White House physician, proudly noted at a Friday talk on activism that 75 million people cast ballots for Trump in November, a cacophony of protest rose up from lecture hall seats.
“Alright, I’ll stand corrected,” Jackson said. “You’re right … At least 75 million ended up being registered as voting for him.” He went on to decry ballots “coming in from who knows where” and vowed: “We’re going to get the House back, I promise you that, as long as we can control the fraud.”
Trump has given “oxygen” to extreme views on the right, said Matthew Wilson, a political-science professor at Southern Methodist University. At big gatherings such as CPAC, he said, “you could always find a few fringe characters, but there are more of them and they are more listened to now than would have been the case 10 years ago.”
Conservatives said they see the radical left as a greater threat.
“We see growing extremism on both sides of the political aisle,” said conference speaker Eugene Kontorovich, a George Mason University law professor, who added he does not believe Trump won in 2020 and would prefer DeSantis in 2024.
CPAC officials explicitly reject some views, saying they do not allow white nationalists, neo-Nazis and members of the alt-right at the conference. But Nick Fuentes, a far-right operative who is banned from CPAC and whom the Justice Department has labeled a white supremacist, briefly stormed into the Dallas hotel with a group of young men Saturday afternoon, yelling “America first!” and “White boy summer!” and accosting a Salon reporter.
A woman wearing a CPAC lanyard clamored for a picture. Other attendees followed Fuentes’ group to the lounge of another hotel across the street, saying they were fans.
One of them, Jonathan Rich, said in an interview that he was with Fuentes at the infamous 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Va. The Tampa, Fla., resident said he isn’t a white nationalist and went to Charlottesville only to observe. Echoing Trump, he said there were “fine people on both sides.”
Rich said he was also outside the U.S. Capitol during the Jan. 6 attack. He said he wants to see an investigation into who was responsible. “Who knows what kind of operatives or anybody that was out there?” he said.
Other CPAC attendees who said they were in Washington on Jan. 6 raised similar doubts about who perpetrated the violence, despite video footage of assailants in Trump gear and other evidence submitted in court filings.
Among them was Stewart Rhodes, the founder of the far-right Oath Keepers who, according to the FBI, exchanged nearly 20 calls with group members over a few hours during the time they breached the Capitol. At least 19 alleged Oath Keepers or associates are charged in the riots, but Rhodes has not been accused of wrongdoing.
In an interview Saturday as he walked to an exhibition hall, Rhodes admitted some angry Trump supporters “did things they shouldn’t have done.” But he said members of his group only walked into the Capitol. He blamed “FBI informants and provocateurs.”
He said no one besides reporters had raised questions about his presence at the conference. “These are my peeps,” Rhodes said. A CPAC official said the conference had reached out to federal law enforcement for guidance on how to keep attendees safe.
Nearby was a booth selling “Q” shirts, which had been introduced just a few weeks ago by popular demand, according to an employee who declined to give her name. Thirty shirts had sold by Saturday morning, the conference’s second day, she said. Also for sale at the same booth: toilet paper grafting Biden’s face onto Adolf Hitler’s.
Throughout the conference, a 59-year-old Massachusetts man named Robert Antonellis wandered the halls with a satchel full of laminated maps and diagrams that laid out a vast and incomprehensible conspiracy theory involving Biden, Martin Luther King Jr., the Illuminati, Satan and the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States. He passed out cards that promised Trump could return to the White House as early as this month — a process he said would be put in motion by revealing “the horror show” of the Democratic Party, electing a conservative House speaker, swapping the speaker with Trump and then impeaching and removing Biden.
Antonellis claimed to have given out the “Trump cards” to scores of people.
Filing out of Trump’s speech Sunday evening, 18-year-old Matthew Jow said he also hoped Trump would be back in the White House soon, though he believed it would probably have to wait until 2024. He said people did not set out to do harm on Jan. 6, but clashed with police who were “in the way” — adding he would welcome another storming of the Capitol, if necessary.
Jow said, “If it happened the same way, I’d probably show up myself.”
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The Washington Post’s Amy B Wang and Neena Satija contributed to this report.