Breaking News Emails
The Conservative Political Action Conference was consumed last year by one burning question: Is Donald Trump a conservative?
This year, attendees have found an answer: Who cares? He’s doing what we want.
"Trump is not traditional anything, but the proof is in the pudding," Mark Skogerboe, a 71-year-old pastor from South Dakota, told NBC News. "He's a Johnny-come-lately on social issues, but he’s surrounding himself with traditional people."
Skogerboe says Trump gave him "the willies" during the primaries. He was drawn to Ben Carson, who he believed embodied a core trait he saw in George Washington and Abraham Lincoln: Humility.
Trump did not. But Skogerboe says he’s "thrilled" by Trump’s early moves and is convinced that the president's cabinet will keep him on the right track.
William Temple, a tea party activist best-known for attending CPAC in a Revolutionary War uniform, helped lead a planned walkout from Trump’s 2016 speech. "We don’t want to associate with a man that makes fun of Carly Fiorina's face, or denigrates women, or is rude and crude," he told the media at the time.
Today, Temple counts himself an enthusiastic supporter.
"I have no reservations now," he said. "He’s proved to me he’s going to follow a conservative agenda."
For Trump, who addressed the event Friday, it was a triumphant return.
He credited CPAC with helping launch his rebirth as a politician by giving him for a speaking slot in 2011. But he also dropped out of a planned speech last year and scored just 15 percent in a presidential straw poll amid a bitter primary race in which prominent conservative activists promised to oppose him under any circumstances.
Trump's speech loudly reiterated campaign pledges to ditch multilateral trade agreements (he even praised Sen. Bernie Sanders’ stance) and to spend big on infrastructure, crack down on illegal immigration, and reduce America’s military commitments abroad — all of which remain highly controversial on the right.
"We’re all part of this very historic movement," Trump said. “A movement the likes of which actually the world has never seen before.”
If the audience had misgivings about his agenda, they didn’t show it: Trump received spirited applause throughout.
"They'll have his back as long as he's fighting for conservative values," Matt Schlapp, chairman of the American Conservative Union, told NBC News. "There will be some rocky days ahead I'm sure, there always are. But what he's doing, which is wise, is building those relationships that'll get him through those tough times."
Trump also helped smooth over differences by devoting much of his speech to bashing the media — an easy applause line at CPAC.
He baselessly accused the Washington Post of fabricating sources in a story alleging former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn discussed sanctions with Russia’s ambassador before the inauguration. It was an odd choice of target: Not only has the White House since confirmed the newspaper's report, Trump said he fired Flynn over comments he made to Vice President Mike Pence about the calls.
The CPAC schedule geared hard towards Trump and his agenda. White House counselor Kellyanne Conway dubbed the conference "TPAC" in a discussion on the main stage Thursday, one of several appearances by top administration officials.
Chief of Staff Reince Priebus and senior adviser Steve Bannon, who rarely speaks in public, participated in a joint Q&A in which Bannon touted Trump’s "economic nationalist agenda."
While some attendees expressed reservations about Trump’s conservative credentials and personal qualities, nearly everyone who spoke to NBC News found reasons to root for his success. Even some activists who voted third party in November stressed that they were keeping an open mind.
"He says whatever is popular — but he has some good things to say," Christian Henderson, an Ohio student who, like many young CPAC activists, was drawn into politics by Ron Paul and voted for Gary Johnson in November.
Henderson said he’s encouraged by Trump’s criticism of military intervention abroad, which the president repeated in his speech on Friday morning.
Jordan Evans, a transgender Republican from Massachusetts, held a sign in the hall outside protesting Trump’s decision to reverse President Barack Obama’s order allowing transgender students to use the bathroom of their choice.
Asked what she thought of Trump, though, and she was quick to add there were things she liked about president’s first month, starting with his plan to remove regulations whenever new ones are submitted.
"I don't want to write him off," she said.
Taking a transactional approach, attendees cited a recurring set of moves by Trump that had helped keep their spirits up.
Many brought up Vice President Mike Pence, who they hoped would have a strong hand in guiding policy, as key to their support.
"I wish it just said Pence," one student in a Trump/Pence hat told NBC News. Trump’s nomination of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court earned uniform praise. Some cited individual cabinet choices, like Education Secretary Betsy DeVos or Health Secretary Tom Price, as a signaled a turn toward conservatism.
"Obviously he had a conversion to conservatism at some point,” Ronald Wilcox, an organizer with the Northern Virginia tea party who supported Trump in the primaries, said. "Pence, Gorsuch: That’s a real track record."
That record will be tested in the coming months. Trump has yet to produce a specific plan on health care, tax reform, or infrastructure spending, among other issues, all of which have the potential to divide conservatives depending on where he comes down.
Sen. Ted Cruz, who delivered a CPAC speech mocking Trump’s conservative credentials in 2016, urged activists to trust, but verify, when it came to the new administration’s agenda.
"The message I am conveying to President Trump, to the Cabinet, to leaders in both houses, is real simple: Let’s do what we promised," Cruz said.
Jim DeMint, president of the Heritage Foundation, called the election results “wonderful” but suggested in his remarks that conservatives need to keep a close eye on the new Republican government.
"All the guardians of the swamp are already whispering in the ear of Republicans in the Congress and in the White House telling them not to keep their promises," DeMint said.
While many were hopeful that conservatism had changed Trump, there were also some signs of concern that conservatism was changing under Trump.
"I'm worried the ACU, for all the talk about the breadth of the conservative movement, is trying to exert too much control over diverse voices," said Jonathan Rodney, a 42-year-old self-described "neoconservative" from New York.
"He wants to make America great," Rodney said of Trump. "But it’s not clear what it is about America he loves."
The fight over former Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopoulos, who was invited and then disinvited, also exposed a divide within the ACU on the limits of conservatism.
Prominent voices on the right complained — even before video emerged of Yiannopoulos discussing sexual relationships between teenage boys and adult men and the age of consent — that he was too close to the "alt right," an offshoot of conservatism that includes some vocal white nationalist supporters. Yiannopoulos has denied being a member or a leader of the alt-right or having any links to white nationalism.
But several students at CPAC who spoke to NBC News were upset he had been dropped.
Some said they enjoyed watching videos of him delivering his catch phrase “Feminism is cancer” to angry audiences or got a kick out of his announcement of a scholarship program for white males. Others were hesitant to endorse his views but felt he was an important symbol of resistance for campus conservatives who felt under siege.
"They tell me I’m a sexist racist murderer for supporting Trump," Claire Ernst, a freshman at Santa Rosa Junior College, said. “It’s important to have someone like Milo to fight back."