WASHINGTON >> In dueling speeches not far from the U.S. Capitol today, former President Donald Trump repeated the false election claims that sparked the Jan. 6 insurrection while his former vice president, Mike Pence, implored the Republican Party to stop looking backward.
Potential foes for the 2024 GOP nomination, neither man was ready to announce a campaign, but their speeches underscored divisions in the party between Trump loyalists and Republicans who may still like Trump’s ideas but are more than ready to move on.
The former president was clearly not ready to move on.
“It was a catastrophe that election. A disgrace to our country,” Trump said, insisting despite all evidence that he had won in 2020. And he continued to tease his plans for the future, telling his cheering crowd, “We may just have to do it again.”
Federal and state election officials from both parties and Trump’s own attorney general have said there is no credible evidence the 2020 election was tainted. The former president’s allegations of fraud were also roundly rejected by courts, including by judges appointed by Trump.
Pence, in an opposite approach from Trump, said, “Some people may choose to focus on the past, but elections are about the future.”
Addressing the Young America’s Foundation, a student conservative group, Pence said. “I believe conservatives must focus on the future to win back America. We can’t afford to take our eyes off the road in front of us because what’s at stake is the very survival of our way of life.”
Trump, too, said America’s survival was at stake. In a speech billed as focused on public safety, he said the country was in imminent danger from crime. Among his proposals, he called for executing drug dealers, sending the homeless to tent cities on the outskirts of towns and expanding his Southwest border wall to keep out the thousands of violent criminals he said resumed pouring in after Joe Biden moved into the White House.
Trump addressed a summit organized by a group of former White House officials and Cabinet members who have been crafting an agenda for a possible second Trump administration.
But he spent plenty of time airing his usual grievances.
“If I renounced my beliefs, if I agreed to stay silent, if I stayed home and just took it easy, the persecution of Donald Trump would stop immediately,” he said. “But that’s not what I will do.”
It was his first trip back to Washington since Jan. 20, 2021, when Biden was sworn into office despite Trump’s frantic efforts to remain in power.
He spoke as some of his potential 2024 rivals have become increasingly brazen in their willingness to challenge him. They include former Pence, who outlined his own “Freedom Agenda ” in a speech nearby.
The former White House partners were making dueling appearances again after campaigning for rival candidates in Arizona on Friday. Their separate speeches come amid news that Pence’s former chief of staff, Marc Short, testified before a federal grand jury investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, assault on the U.S. Capitol.
Short was at the Capitol that day as Pence fled an angry mob of rioters who called for his hanging after Trump wrongly insisted Pence had the power to overturn the election results.
Pence has repeatedly defended his actions that day, even as his decision to stand up to his boss turned large swaths of Trump’s loyal base against him. Polls show that Trump remains, by far, the top choice of GOP primary voters, with Pence far behind.
That contrast was on display today as Trump spoke before an audience of hundreds of cheering supporters gathered for the America First Policy Institute’s two-day America First Agenda Summit. Composed of former Trump administration officials and allies, the group is widely seen as an “administration in waiting” that could quickly move to the West Wing if Trump should run again and win.
The event had the feel of a Trump White House reunion — but one without Pence.
Pence, meanwhile, received a friendly — but not enthusiastic — welcome from the students, who struggled to break into a “USA!” chant.
In his remarks, he repeatedly touted the “Trump-Pence administration.” But the first question he received during a brief question-and-answer session was about his growing split with Trump, which is particularly stark given the years he spent as the former president’s most loyal sidekick.
Pence denied the two “differ on issues,” but acknowledged, “we may differ on focus.”
“I truly do believe that elections are about the future and that it’s absolutely essential, at a time when so many Americans are hurting and so many families are struggling, that we don’t give way to the temptation to look back,” he said.
Also today, Simon & Schuster announced the title of Pence’s upcoming book, “So Help Me God,” which will be published in November. The publisher said the book would, in part, chronicle “President Trump’s severing of their relationship on January 6, 2021,when Pence kept his oath to the Constitution.”
Trump has spent much of his time since leaving office spreading lies about his loss to sow doubt about Biden’s victory. Indeed, even as the House Jan. 6 committee has been laying bare his attempts to remain in power and his refusal to call off a violent mob of his supporters as they tried to halt the peaceful transition of power, Trump has continued to try to pressure officials to overturn Biden’s win, despite there being no legal means to decertify it.
Republican Tommy Tuberville of Alabama said he’d be among several GOP senators attending Trump’s speech.
“You’re going to hear the same thing that you hear at all the other speeches,” Tuberville told reporters at the Capitol. “But, you know, go down there and listen, as a lot of us will.”
Beyond the summit, the America First Policy Institute has been making preparations for another possible Trump administration, “making sure we do have the policies, personnel and process nailed down for every key agency when we do take the White House back,” said its president, Brooke Rollins.
The group is one of several Trump-allied organizations that have continued to push his polices in his absence, including America First Legal, dedicated to fighting Biden’s agenda through the court system, the Center for Renewing America and the Conservative Partnership Institute.