WASHINGTON — Six years ago, as the “money, money, money, money” chorus of his reality TV show’s theme song blasted, Donald Trump stepped out before the nation’s largest gathering of conservative activists for the first time. The crowd was less than adoring, occasionally laughing at and booing the longtime former Democrat.
The intro music is more likely to be “Hail to the Chief” when he takes the stage Friday at the Conservative Political Action Conference. The audience will have changed its tune, too.
Trump’s upcoming speech is designed to be one of appreciation, White House senior strategist Steve Bannon said Thursday. “He understands, at CPAC there are many, many, many voices,” he said. “This is the room where he got his launch.”
Bannon said Breitbart News, which he led before joining Trump’s team last summer, and other conservative outlets first took note of the brash billionaire at his CPAC debut. And that’s where Trump first began understanding the conservatives who years later would help him win the presidency.
“He wasn’t familiar with CPAC when we introduced the concept to him,” said Roger Stone, Trump’s longtime informal political adviser. He said he thought Trump did quite well in that first appearance — “when you consider that he’s not a pure ideologue. He’s a populist with conservative instincts.”
Stone and a gay Republican group had arranged the last-minute appearance, which Trump locked in with a donation to the American Conservative Union, which hosts the conference.
Although Trump returned most years afterward, he was notably absent last year. ACU chairman Matt Schlapp said the presidential candidates were asked to participate in a question-and-answer session, but Trump wanted to make a speech.
He did show up in 2015, however, a few months before he announced his candidacy.
“I am really inclined. I want to do it so badly,” Trump said about the likelihood he’d run. Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker were the top two choices in that year’s straw poll.
Now, CPAC is largely the Trump show — “TPAC,” White House counselor Kellyanne Conway called it. She, Bannon and other administration officials spoke Thursday, and Vice President Mike Pence gave a keynote address.
Schlapp said Trump will be the first president to address the group during his first year in office since Ronald Reagan in 1981. He called that a “huge sign of respect.”
Trump’s first speech to the group bore little resemblance to the mega-rallies that were the hallmark of his presidential campaign, although many of the themes were the same. He read from papers on a lectern. He appeared to eye the crowd nervously.
No one in the crowd cheered or applauded when he explained why he might run for president.
He vowed to repeal President Barack Obama’s health care law. He promised to create “vast numbers of productive jobs” and not to raise taxes. A Trump presidency, he predicted, would mean for the U.S. “hundreds of billions of dollars from other countries that are screwing us.”
Although he eventually decided not to run — then — the audience got a sneak peek at his free-wheeling, non-sequitur-filled style. He ping-ponged from high gas prices to his love of open markets to his belief that China is manipulating currency.
He noted that a German company had bought the New York Stock Exchange, and abruptly changed the subject: “How about the Somali pirates? Now, you know, that doesn’t really pertain to us, but how simple would that be? If we had a good admiral. Give me one good admiral and a couple of good ships — we’d blast them out of the water so fast.”
He tried to burnish his conservative credentials with assertions that he is pro-life and anti-gun control, while heaping praise on himself and his business acumen.
And he appeared to test-drive the “make America great again” phrase that would become his 2016 presidential campaign slogan. “Our country will be great again,” he said. He trademarked that phrase in 2012, just after Mitt Romney lost to Obama.
He told the skeptical crowd: “I have a reputation for telling it like it is. I’m known for my candor.”
He seemed to back that up later.
Near the end of the speech he told the skeptical crowd that he was only thinking about running because he didn’t like any of the potential candidates — prompting shouts of “Ron Paul” to break out. A Texas congressman at the time, Paul was a fan favorite of CPAC and won its straw poll that year.
Trump looked amused and shook his head. “By the way, Ron Paul cannot get elected, I’m sorry.” he said. Loud boos erupted as Trump reiterated, “Zero chance of getting elected.”
An angry audience member shouted: “You have zero chance of getting elected.”