Trump allies show fealty to former president with golden statue
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. conservatives praised Donald Trump at an annual gathering on Friday, even unveiling a golden statue of the former president, showing he remains a Republican political force despite violent scenes in Washington last month.
Prominent congressional conservatives - including Senators Tom Cotton and Josh Hawley and Representatives Steve Scalise and Matt Gaetz - were among the Trump loyalists speaking at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Orlando, Florida, which Trump will address on Sunday.
"Let me tell you something: Donald Trump ain’t going anywhere," said Senator Ted Cruz.
Trump's tumultuous final weeks in office saw his supporters launch a deadly attack on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 in an attempt to block Congress from certifying Democratic President Joe Biden's election victory, a win that Trump falsely claimed was tainted by widespread fraud.
If there was any doubt that CPAC this year was devoted to Trump, the statue of the former president, dressed in a blue jacket, red tie, and red, white and blue boxing shorts, was on display at the conference site.
The statue drew instant derision online, with commentators comparing it to the golden calf that enraged the prophet Moses in the Old Testament.
"Idol worship isn't conservative. #RestoreOurGop," Representative Adam Kinzinger, one of 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach Trump on a charge of inciting the Jan. 6 attack, said on Twitter.
Gaetz declared himself part of the "pro-Trump, America First" wing of the conservative movement. "We're not really a wing, we're the whole body," he said.
He also appeared to forecast a future role for Trump, who is pondering another run for president in 2024: "Trump may not have drained the swamp all the way – yet."
Trump is expected to talk on Sunday about the future of the party and lay out policy differences within a group riven by differences in the wake of his chaotic four years in office.
"The divide right now is between the 'Beltway elites' and the conservative grassroots around the country," said a Trump adviser who helped prepare the speech.
Trump will also offer red-meat rhetoric critical of his successor, Democrat President Joe Biden.
Trump supporters at the conference on Friday repeated some of his false claims, arguing that they justified new restrictions on voting.
In addition to the 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach Trump, seven Senate Republicans voted to convict him of inciting insurrection, although the 57-43 vote fell short of the two-thirds majority needed to convict.
Some advisers say they want Trump not to use his speech to relitigate the election at length but instead offer a road map to Republicans' regaining control of the House of Representatives and the Senate in the 2022 congressional elections.
The prospect of Trump, 74, running for president again in 2024 complicates life for other Republican presidential hopefuls, including former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and former Vice President Mike Pence.
Pence, who was in the Capitol with his family when rioters stormed in chanting: "Hang Mike Pence!" is not expected to attend this year's CPAC.
Trump had repeatedly said Pence had the power to stop the certification of the election results, even though he did not.
CPAC is an event organized by the American Conservative Union, whose chairman, Matt Schlapp, is close to Trump. It is a prime venue for speakers who want to gauge interest in whether they should run for president based on the enthusiasm they generate.
Many Republicans think Trump will flirt with another run to freeze the 2024 field but believe he will ultimately opt out of running. Trump himself has mused privately to advisers that he would like to run.
(Reporting by Steve Holland; Additional reporting by David Morgan; Editing by Scott Malone and Cynthia Osterman)
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