He lambasted and lampooned his rivals. He exaggerated and ballyhooed his record. He riddled his remarks with contradictions, shoddy statistics and falsehoods. And he embroidered it all with a fake Southern accent, curse words and bouts of extravagant pantomime.
For two hours and five minutes last weekend, President Trump dazzled his supporters and appalled his critics with a mind-spinning, free-associating performance that neatly encapsulated his singular standing as a polarizing cultural figure.
Even for a politician who never seems to stop talking, the tour-de-force performance at the Conservative Political Action Conference — the longest speech of Trump’s presidency — stands apart as a road map to understanding the 45th president’s id. It also offers a preview of the cacophonous 2020 campaign to come.
The spectacle showcased Trump in his purest form, an unconventional politician who drives opponents to madness and acolytes to glee. The businessman-turned-reality-TV-star-turned-politician inhabited multiple personas in the space of a single speech — often intertwined and at a dizzying clip — from entertainer to fighter, from fabulist to bully.
Trump took the CPAC stage after a stretch of global failures: the collapse of nuclear talks with North Korea; record high trade deficits and signs of a slowing economy; a surge in illegal immigration; and an unbuilt border wall that is unfunded after a lost standoff with Democrats in Congress.
Yet Trump on this Saturday afternoon was positively buoyant. His aides and confidants liken him to a whistling teapot, a pressure cooker that might explode if he does not blow off steam. For Trump, the platform was a release valve.
A commentary in the libertarian publication Reason described Trump’s turn on the CPAC stage as “Prince-at-the-Super-Bowl great,” declaring that, if he can consistently re-create the dynamic, “his reelection is a foregone conclusion.” The left-leaning Salon website, meanwhile, described his remarks as “more like the delusional ramblings of someone hopped up on drugs or suffering a mental breakdown than anything resembling a normal political speech.”
“This is how I got elected, by being off script,” the president said, briefly walking a half circle away from the podium, as if to physically illustrate just how far he had veered from his teleprompter remarks. “And if we don’t go off script, our country is in big trouble, folks.”
Little of what Trump said was factual — he made 102 false or misleading claims in the speech, according to an analysis by the Washington Post’s Fact Checker — yet to this crowd and millions of supporters around the country, his broader points rang true and carried the imprimatur of authority because he delivered them.
Then, there was the fearmongering. The president who has made illegal immigration a centerpiece of his agenda painted a dangerous and harrowing portrait of life at the U.S.-Mexico border, claiming, for instance, that asylum-seeking mothers give their daughters “massive amounts of birth control pills” because they know their daughters will get raped in transit.
“In those caravans, you have stone-cold killers,” Trump said. “People with big, long crime records. People with tremendous violence in their past. Murderers, killers, drug dealers, human traffickers.”
Trump emoted so vigorously that sweat pooled on his upper lip and glistened across his face. He deployed nicknames (“Little Shifty Schiff” for Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff of California), professed his love for TiVo (“one of the great inventions in history”) and five times used an antiquated term when referring to women (“darling”).
He relied on his trademark gestures, from extending his index fingers and thumbs to frame his declarations of success to splaying his hands apart as if pulling taffy.
On display were 10 distinct personalities of Trump that encapsulate his unorthodox presidency and reveal his strengths and vulnerabilities as he begins his quest for reelection.
It was the presidency as vaudeville act — the commander in chief at Carnegie Hall.
About 10 minutes into his speech, Trump playfully imagined life under Democratic rule by misrepresenting the impacts of the proposed Green New Deal. As Trump falsely told it, airplane travel and electric power would cease to exist.
“When the wind stops blowing, that’s the end of your electric,” Trump said. Gripping the podium and craning his head to a hypothetical wife offstage, he cried out: “Darling, darling, is the wind blowing today? I’d like to watch television, darling.”
The crowd hooted its approval. And why not? Even the president’s critics admit he can be funny.
Trump feeds off his audiences and adapts to his environments. He delivers scripted remarks when the moment demands it, such as giving the State of the Union to a joint session of Congress, but offers humor, impersonations and taunts — some of them widely viewed as misogynistic, racist or otherwise offensive — when he wants to excite a crowd.
He clutched at his neck and flopped out his tongue, regaling the audience with an impersonation of an unnamed friend — many Trump speeches include references to anonymous (and sometimes nonexistent) friends — who he said fears public speaking and chokes in front of even a small crowd.
The president from Queens adopted a Southern accent to mimic his former attorney general, Jeff Sessions, saying, “I’m gonna recuse mahhself.”
Turning back to the ballroom, Trump moaned, “And I said, ‘Why the hell didn’t he tell me that before I put him in?’”
As in other speeches, Trump relied on shorthand and recurring characters — the “fake news” media and “Crooked Hillary” — and shouted out to allies in the room.
He repeatedly cited shoddy statistics and inaccurate data. The effect, perhaps intentionally, was a fog of numbers and percentages that gave the impression of expertise.
But the details didn’t seem to matter to the Trump faithful.
“I’m in love, and you’re in love,” the president declared. “We’re all in love together.”
Core to Trump’s appeal is the notion that he is a billionaire who is nonetheless fighting on behalf of the American worker.
“Every day, my presidency will defend American families,” Trump said. “We will defend America’s workers — our great, great cherished workers — that now we’re taking care of. They’re not losing their jobs. We’re creating those jobs. We’re not letting those companies destroy their lives anymore.”
The president’s tough talk, however, belies his decidedly mixed record. The tax cuts he signed into law in 2017 included late-stage changes to benefit millionaires and billionaires. For all the growth in manufacturing jobs, some factories are closing, too, including a General Motors plant in Ohio this month. And critics accuse Trump of juicing the economy through deficit spending that future generations will have to pay down.
But that did not stop Trump from casting himself as the rare president fighting for the middle class. His predecessors, in his telling, looked out mostly for the ruling class and made “decades of blunders and betrayals.”
Invoking the controversial national emergency that he declared last month after failing to secure money for his border wall, Trump criticized previous presidents for using executive powers to help people in faraway nations: “to ensure political stability in Burundi and to defend the sovereignty of Lebanon.”
“Now we are protecting, finally, our people,” Trump said to applause. “You. Our people.”
Trump has the power to launch nuclear weapons or summon a Diet Coke with the press of a button on the Resolute desk. But to hear the president tell it, he is also a victim, under attack from everyone from the “fake news” media to the Russia “witch hunt” investigation.
On the 2018 midterm elections, when Republicans lost the House in a Democratic wave, Trump lamented that “we were given no credit” for holding the Senate.
“The fake news back there, they love to say, ‘Donald Trump suffered a big defeat,’” he said. “We won the Senate, and we had this, like, tremendous victory. We get no credit at all.”
He dismissed the nation’s immigration crisis as a problem foisted upon him: “Not my fault I inherited this mess,” he said, “but we’re fixing it.”
He also cast himself as the lonely star of the most recent government shutdown, incorrectly claiming that he remained in the White House “for a number of months.”
“I spent my New Year’s all by myself,” he said, moments after bemoaning a “cabin fever” in which he was rattling around the White House. He made no mention of the federal workers who went without paychecks, resorting to food banks and taking second jobs to get by.
Trump became a household name and earned millions as the star and producer of NBC’s “The Apprentice.” Yet during a riff about how the generals leading troops in Iraq were out of “central casting,” the president portrayed himself as an outsider to the entertainment industry.
“Hollywood discriminates against our people,” Trump said.
The theme of victimhood was so pronounced that Trump called onstage Hayden Williams, a 26-year-old conservative activist who was assaulted at UC Berkeley last month.
Trump is always looking to assert dominance. He taunted one of his regular targets: special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, who is readying a report on Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election that threatens to imperil Trump’s presidency.
Trump tried to diminish Mueller, a decorated Marine and acclaimed former FBI director, by dismissing him as someone who had never won anything, in contrast to himself.
“Robert Mueller never received a vote, and neither did the person that appointed him,” the president said, referring to Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein.
In addition to undermining rivals with belittling nicknames, Trump attacked others — including some in his own administration — without ever mentioning their names.
“We have a gentleman that likes raising interest rates at the Fed,” Trump said in reference to Jerome H. Powell, whom he has regularly criticized since picking him to chair the Federal Reserve. “We have a gentleman that loves quantitative tightening in the Fed. We have a gentleman that likes a very strong dollar in the Fed.”
Here, Trump embodies the bully-as-coward stereotype, someone who is willing to take on a foe but only at a safe remove.
He also tried to cast himself as the conquering brawler, talking trash about his opponents. He complained that Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and John Podesta, Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign chairman, did not applaud his controversial decision to fire James Comey as FBI director, despite having publicly complained about Comey themselves.
“He still hasn’t gotten over getting his ass kicked, okay?” Trump said.
It was unclear whether the president was referring to the posterior of Podesta or Schumer.
Trump likes to market himself as the smartest person in any room — a graduate of the finest schools who has more knowledge than the experts he often refers to in a mocking tone as “geniuses.”
“I’m, like, a very smart person,” he declared in 2016.
So it was no surprise that the president extolled his savvy on a range of subjects — including forest management, which piqued his interest last fall when wildfires ravaged California.
“When a tree falls, you can’t let the environmentalist say, ‘You can’t take that tree out,’” Trump said. “It becomes like a matchstick, that tree. It hits a flame, it goes up. The leaves — every once in a while, you have to remove the leaves because they are so — a guy smoking a cigarette, he throws it away. He doesn’t mean it. The thing catches on fire, and we lose 400,000 acres and people are killed. You got to have management.”
Trump has also created a persona for himself as a business whiz. He sought to reinforce it with a lengthy monologue about trade policy and his Chinese tariffs, as if to say to his supporters: Don’t worry, I’ve got this.
The president dropped numbers, big numbers: “Not like $200 million. That’s a lot. This is 200 with a B: billion. Two hundred billion.”
Descending over Iraq on his first visit to a war zone, Trump says he looked out the window of the Air Force One cockpit and marveled at what he saw below.
“But there’s no runway,” Trump recalled telling one of the pilots.
“‘No, sir, the runway is right up there, sir,’” Trump recounted the pilot saying. But the president was still not appeased; he suggested lifting off and trying again to land because the runway was invisible in the darkness.
There was a simple explanation: The lights at al-Asad Air Base, just outside Baghdad, were turned off to protect the president’s landing site from enemy fire. But that did not satisfy Trump. It, in fact, riled him up.
For Trump, nearly everything, including foreign policy, is a transaction at its core — pure dollars and cents. He frames his political arguments, such as his vow to withdraw the United States from foreign entanglements, around the grievances of average Americans who feel their leaders have ripped them off.
“There’s practically no lights,” Trump said about Baghdad. “These are little pin spots. And I said, ‘Think of this: We spent $7 trillion in the Middle East and we can’t land with the lights on. Twenty years later.”
The audience laughed.
“How bad is it?” Trump asked them. “No, seriously, how bad is it? How bad is it? Seven trillion dollars and we have to fly in with no lights.”
“The Election, we call it, with a capital E,” Trump boomed to the crowd.
He was referring, of course, to his own.
The president is a natural braggart, boasting and peacocking about his achievements — even those he imagines, such as the fake Time magazine covers featuring himself that decorate the walls of his private golf clubs.
But one of his favorite topics is his improbable 2016 campaign, a topic he returned to several times at CPAC. He relived the precise number of electoral votes he earned (“We didn’t get 270; we got 306 to 223,” he misstated.) and twice mentioned gliding down the escalator in his Trump Tower in Manhattan to announce his quixotic bid.
“From that day we came down the escalator, I really don’t believe we’ve had an empty seat at any arena, at any stadium,” Trump said incorrectly.
His boasts were substantive and aesthetic, such as bragging that, unlike many members of the Senate, he does not show his age. “See,” the septuagenarian president told the crowd, “I don’t have white hair.”
Most off all, Trump sought to place himself in the pantheon of the world’s historic figures.
“What we’ve done together,” he said, “has never been done in the history, maybe of beyond our country, maybe in the history of the world.”
To Trump, there may be no greater measurement of a man’s worth than the size of his crowd, and few discussion topics animate him more.
He raised the topic at least four separate times at CPAC, using fantastical assertions to inflate his popular appeal — including a false claim that there has never been an empty seat at one of his rallies.
“We had a rally at the airport where 55,000 people showed up to the airport,” he said, apparently referring to his Nov. 4 campaign event in Macon, Ga., for gubernatorial candidate Brian Kemp. “It was one hangar. They had three other hangars that were full. They went so far back.”
In fact, the rally was staged in one hangar, not three. The crowd included those inside the open hangar, those just outside and a third group of people watching it on a giant TV screen nearby. The highest official estimate was 18,500 people overall, a third of Trump’s claim.
He also falsely said his border wall is being built. He falsely asserted that the U.S. economy is the best in history. And he falsely claimed that he fired Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, who resigned in protest of the president’s Syria policy.
In total, the Washington Post’s Fact Checker concluded, Trump’s 102 false or misleading claims in the speech made March 2 the fourth-biggest day of his presidency for fishy statements.
In a speech notable for his foul language, Trump offered a rare insight into his marriage: First Lady Melania Trump doesn’t like when he curses.
“Everybody knows the word I’d love to use. Should I use it?” Trump said to the approving roar of the crowd. “I won’t do it. Our great first lady always said, ‘Don’t use certain words, please.’ I said, ‘But the audience wanted me to do it!’”
This is Trump’s appeal to many — his willingness to utterly defy convention and disobey his advisors, including his wife. He is a rebel with a cause: to endear himself to the masses.
The straight-talking New Yorker is known to curse freely in private, but he only occasionally does so from the presidential lectern. So when he called the Russia investigation “bull----,” the crowd of conservative activists hummed with excitement.
Another way Trump flouts his aides’ counsel is by harping on media coverage of his crowd sizes. He said White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders and communications advisor Mercedes Schlapp tell him not to bring up such grievances.
“They always say, ‘Don’t bring it up. Don’t fight. Don’t fight. Everybody understands,’” Trump recalled. “I said, ‘They don’t understand. If I don’t explain it, how are they going to understand?’”
Trump said that whenever he has “a slow moment” as president, he revisits the controversy over his inauguration crowd — which was notably smaller than Barack Obama’s — and directs Sanders and Schlapp to again litigate it with the media. “Show them the pictures,” Trump says he tells his aides.
“Sarah said, and Mercedes said, ‘Sir, it doesn’t matter. Nobody cares,’” Trump said.
The president’s reply: “But I care,” he said. “And people care. People care.”
As he fed off the energy of the crowd, Trump suddenly had a complaint. Referring to Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a Massachusetts Democrat running for president, Trump adopted a conspiratorial tone and lamented, “I should’ve saved the ‘Pocahontas’ thing for another year.”
As the crowd laughed at the racial slur he routinely uses about Warren’s claim of Native American heritage, he explained: “Because I’ve destroyed her political career, and now I won’t get a chance to run against her, and I would’ve loved it.”
Trump often channels his inner pundit, acting more as America’s play-by-play announcer than the occupant of the Oval Office.
The president offered a biting analysis of “Never Trumpers” who vigorously opposed his candidacy. “They are on mouth-to-mouth resuscitation,” he said. “Mouth-to-mouth. They’re hanging in. … These guys have gotten me wrong.”
He explained the marketing appeal of his ubiquitous “Make America Great Again” hats: “Those red hats — and white ones,” he said, swiping his hand across an imaginary brim. “The key isn’t the color. The key is what it says.”
He mused aloud about what to call the opposing party. “It sounds prettier when we use “Democratic,’” he said. “I hate to say in the speech, the ‘Democrat Party,’ because it doesn’t sound good. But that’s all the more reason I use it, because it doesn’t.”
He even offered a bit of unsolicited advice to the Democrats. “They should change it because it sounds much better,” Trump said. “Rhetorically, it’s much better.”
He also explained why he remained in Washington during the recent government shutdown: “I figured it would look good if I stayed in the White House so that you people all love me and vote for me, OK?”
At one point, he found himself offering an assessment of the speech itself, joking with the crowd that it should have been delivered a year from now in the middle of the 2020 campaign.
He added: “I’m going to regret this speech.”
Ashley Parker and Philip Rucker write for the Washington Post.