Taking the stage for the first time since leaving office, Donald Trump has called for Republican Party unity in a speech at a conservative political conference.
Mr Trump used his speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference, where he has been hailed as a returning hero, to blast his successor, President Joe Biden, and try to cement his status as the party’s undisputed leader despite his loss in November.
“Do you miss me yet?” Mr Trump said after taking the stage, where his old rally soundtrack had been playing.
“I stand before you today to declare that the incredible journey we begun together… is far from being over.”
“Hello CPAC, do you miss me yet?”#CPAC2021 #UncancelAmerica pic.twitter.com/0bcILt0O52
— CPAC 2021 (@CPAC) February 28, 2021
Though Mr Trump has flirted with the the idea of creating a third party, he pledged to remain part of what he called “our beloved party”.
“I’m going to continue to fight right by your side. We’re not starting new parties,” he said. “We have the Republican Party. It’s going to be strong and united like never before.”
The conference, held this year in Orlando instead of the Washington suburbs because of Covid-19 restrictions, has been a tribute to Mr Trump and Trumpism, complete with a golden statue in his likeness.
Speakers, including many potential 2024 hopefuls, have argued the party must embrace the former president and his followers, even after the deadly insurrection at the US Capitol on January 6.
And they have repeated his unfounded claims that he lost the November election only because the election was “rigged” — claims that have been rejected by judges, Republican state officials and Mr Trump’s own administration.
The conference’s annual unscientific straw poll of just over 1,000 attendees found that 97% approve of the job Mr Trump did as president.
But they were much more ambiguous about whether he should run again, with 68% saying he should.
If the 2024 primary were held today and Mr Trump were in the race, just 55% said they would vote for him, followed by Florida Gov Ron DeSantis at 21%.
Without Mr Trump in the field, DeSantis garnered 43% support, followed by 8% for South Dakota Gov Kristi Noem and 7% each for former secretary of state Mike Pompeo and Texas Sen Ted Cruz.
It is highly unusual for past American presidents to publicly criticise their successors so soon after leaving office.