President Trump capped a tumultuous week by reveling in the embrace of conservative activists on Saturday, deriding investigations of himself, repeatedly complaining about coverage of his crowd sizes and abruptly announcing an executive order to mandate protection of “free speech” on college campuses.
In his remarks at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference, or CPAC, which stretched beyond two hours, Trump also mocked the Green New Deal promoted by liberals to address climate change; disparaged his former attorney general, Jeff Sessions, with a faux Southern accent; and defended his move to declare a national emergency to secure money for his U.S.-Mexico border wall, which was denied by Congress.
“You know, I don’t know, maybe you know. You know, I’m totally off script right?” Trump said at the outset of his extended speech. “This is how I got elected, by being off script ... and if we don’t go off script, our country is in big trouble, folks.”
But the Russia investigation and those leading it drew the most ire, and profanity, from the president as investigations ramp up in Congress and special counsel Robert S. Mueller III continues his inquiry into potential collusion between Trump associates and Moscow during the 2016 election campaign.
“So now they go and morph into, ‘Let’s inspect every deal he’s ever done,’” Trump said. The president offered a new nickname for House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank) — “Little Shifty Schiff” — and added, “These people are sick. They’re sick.”
“You put the wrong people in a couple of positions,” Trump continued, “and they leave people for a long time that shouldn’t be there, and all of a sudden they are trying to take you out with [expletive], OK?
“Now Robert Mueller never received a vote, and neither did the person who appointed him,” he said.
Trump’s speech — zigzagging from trade to immigration, the 2016 campaign to last fall’s midterm election — came against the backdrop of the collapse of his summit with North Korea and the extraordinary congressional testimony from his former personal lawyer and fixer, Michael Cohen.
Cohen testified that Trump manipulated financial records and learned of WikiLeaks’ efforts to dump damaging information on Hillary Clinton in advance during the 2016 campaign.
Trump mentioned his call during the campaign for Russia to hack into Clinton’s emails, although he suggested that he was being sarcastic at the time and criticized the news media for coverage of those remarks.
The targets were many in Trump’s wide-ranging speech, including jabs at various unnamed Republican senators — “Where do these people come from?” — his potential Democratic challengers in 2020 and Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell.
“We have a gentleman who likes raising interest rates, a gentleman who likes quantitative tightening,” said Trump of the Fed chairman, whom he appointed. “Can you imagine if we left interest rates where they were? If we didn’t do quantitative tightening, taking money out of the market?”
Trump has repeatedly slammed Powell for raising interest rates too quickly. Powell had said the rate hikes were necessary in light of the economic evidence, but in January acknowledged the case for raising rates had “weakened” somewhat.
Trump also dismissed one prominent argument from Republicans regarding his recent decision to declare a national emergency to redirect federal funds for his border wall. GOP lawmakers have argued that the president’s move may set a precedent for future Democratic presidents, but Trump said the answer to that was for him to be reelected. “They’re gonna do that anyway, folks,” he said. “The best way to stop that is for us to win the election.”
Trump mocked the Green New Deal’s climate-related provisions, deriding the plan as promoting “no planes, no energy.”
“When the wind stops blowing, that’s the end of your electric,” Trump said, before launching into an impression. “‘Darling, is the wind blowing today? I’d like to watch television, darling.’”
Key planks of the liberal platform call for renewed investments in energy and transportation alternatives. Although a fact sheet associated with the Green New Deal proposes to “build out high-speed rail at a scale where air travel stops becoming necessary,” the resolution does not advocate for terminating air travel.
Trump also announced that he would sign a new executive order to make federal research funding for colleges and universities contingent on their support of “free speech.” The move appeared to be a response to complaints by some university critics that institutions of higher education stifle right-wing viewpoints.
“If they want our dollars, and we give it to them by the billions, they’ve got to allow people like Hayden and many great young people, and old people, to speak,” Trump said, bringing onstage a young conservative, Hayden Williams, who was physically attacked last month while lobbying for a conservative organization at UC Berkeley.
Ahead of Saturday’s conference, Trump dealt with an unusually tumultuous week.
Talks in Hanoi with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un failed to produce an agreement, with the White House saying it could not accede to Kim’s demands that the U.S. end all economic sanctions in exchange for closing just one nuclear facility. The North Koreans gave a different account, saying Kim asked for only a partial lifting of sanctions.
Though he was largely praised for walking away from a potentially bad deal with Kim, Trump ignited another furor when he said in Hanoi that he took the North Korean leader “at his word” when Kim denied knowing about the treatment of Otto Warmbier, the U.S. college student who died in 2017 upon returning after being detained in Pyongyang the year before.
Warmbier’s parents spoke out after Trump’s statement, saying Kim and his “evil regime” were responsible for their son’s death. Trump later tried to clarify on Twitter, saying: “Of course I hold North Korea responsible for Otto’s mistreatment and death.”
Two hours into his CPAC speech, Trump brought up the North Korea talks, declaring his affection for the Warmbiers and talking about the “very, very delicate balance” of the nuclear negotiations.
“We made a lot of progress,” Trump said, noting a “very good meeting” and saying North Korea “has an incredible, brilliant future.”
The week also included news reports that Trump ordered his former chief of staff, John F. Kelly, to grant Trump’s advisor and son in law, Jared Kushner, a top secret security clearance, even though the president previously denied involvement in securing the clearance.
Kim and Fung write for the Washington Post.