A freewheeling President Donald Trump offered a political greatest hits reel Friday to the highest-profile right-wing gathering of the year, basking in conservative plaudits for what he characterized as a triumphant first year in office.
Quickly discarding prepared remarks he deemed “sort of boring,” Trump lit into Democrats and even some Republicans who he deemed insufficiently doctrinaire, and again called for teachers to be armed in schools as a response to the Florida shooting last week.
An armed teacher, Trump claimed, would have “shot the hell” out of the Florida killer.
He welcomed familiar chants like “lock her up” about Hillary Clinton, the opponent he defeated 15 months ago. And he pledged to protect gun ownership rights, even amid an emotional national debate over guns in which he’d pledged new restrictions.
It was Trump’s second appearance as President at the Conservative Political Action Conference, held just outside Washington in Maryland. His speech at CPAC last year was a blistering and dark diatribe that cemented the notion that Trump would not adhere to presidential norms.
This time around, Trump was more upbeat. He declared his administration “has had the most successful first year in the history of the presidency,” naming tax cuts and a regulatory overhaul as his chief accomplishments. He trumpeted downgrades in US participation in the Paris climate accord and the Iran nuclear accord. He even offered a rare glimpse of self-deprecation when he admitted to some personal vanity.
“I try like hell to hide that bald spot folks, folks, I work hard at it,” he said, looking at his image projected onto a jumbotron.
But his language and targets were largely unchanged from the brash and impolitic campaign that propelled him into office.
He went on an extended riff about immigration, vowing to build his promised border wall, lamenting a system he claimed was woefully broken, and declaring Democrats were unwilling to accept an agreement that would reform the DACA program.
“The Democrats are being totally unresponsive. They don’t want to do anything about DACA,” he declared.
He launched into the “snake” fable that formed a major portion of his campaign stump speech, glistening with sweat as he warned against accepting immigrants he characterized as violent criminals.
And he was gleeful in his assaults on political rivals. He deemed Democrats “really crazed.” And though he didn’t name Sen. John McCain, the ailing Arizona Republican, he lashed out at his vote against a health care repeal that many Republicans backed.
“It would be controversial so I won’t use his name,” Trump said. “What a mess.”
Trump’s aides said ahead of his speech that he would use the address to unveil harsh new sanctions against North Korea, part of a pressure campaign Trump has frequently used to illustrate his foreign policy strength. But after more than 70 minutes, Trump still hadn’t come around to the announcement.
He finally referenced the new sanctions just before leaving the stage.
“We will see, but hopefully something positive can happen,” Trump said. “That just was announced and I wanted to let you know.”
The Republicans who organize CPAC and fill its speaking roster have sometimes cringed at Trump’s harsh rhetoric, but they tolerate it in the hopes he can help shepherd through a staunchly conservative agenda.
They have largely been rewarded over the past year, as Trump has approved sweeping tax cuts that include slashing the corporate rate, a massive unraveling of regulations and the partial repeal of the Affordable Care Act.
Their tolerance for Trump’s crude brashness may be tested in the gun debate. The President has vowed to take action to prevent school shootings like the one in Florida last week, and he has expressed openness to at least one measure opposed by the National Rifle Association: raising the minimum age to purchase firearms like the AR-15.
On Friday, however, Trump declared himself firm in his support for gun ownership rights, despite his pledges this week to take some action on guns.
“They will put judges in that you wouldn’t believe, they’ll take away your 2nd Amendment, which we will never allow to happen, they’ll take away your 2nd Amendment,” he said of Democrats to raucous cheers from the crowd, which skews younger.
He repeated his insistence that some school professionals carry firearms, despite what he said was reasonable opposition to the idea.
“Well-trained, gun-adept teachers and coaches” should carry firearms in schools, he said.
“I mean, I don’t want to have a hundred guards with rifles standing all over the school. You do a concealed carry permit,” he said. “This would be a major deterrent, because these people are inherently cowards.”
Opening his speech Friday, Trump touted accomplishments, despite what he said was skepticism about his conservative bona fides.
“Remember when I first started running – I started running and people said are you sure he’s a conservative. I think now we can say I’m a conservative,” he said. “We have put more great conservative ideas into use than perhaps ever before in American history.”
And though he seemed eager to proclaim the massive tax cuts approved late last year, when Trump conducted an informal poll of the audience about which issue mattered more – the tax issue or protecting gun rights – the clear winner was guns.
“I’m going to leave it at the Second Amendment,” he shrugged. “I don’t want to get into that battle.”