By JILL COLVIN
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Making his first public appearance since the House committee investigating the Jan. 6 insurrection began its hearings laying bare his desperate attempts to subvert democracy and remain in power, former President Donald Trump on Friday lashed out at the committee as he continued to tease his plans for a third presidential run.
Speaking to religious conservatives at a sprawling resort near the Grand Ole Opry House in Nashville, Trump blasted the committee’s efforts as a “theatrical production of partisan political fiction” and insisted he had done nothing wrong.
“What you’re seeing is a complete and total lie. It’s a complete and total fraud,” he told the Faith and Freedom Coalition’s “Road to Majority” conference. He dismissed the harrowing video footage and searing testimony presented by the committee — including first-hand accounts from senior aides and family members — as having been selectively edited. And he downplayed the insurrection as “a simple protest that got out hand.”
Trump’s appearance at an event long known as a testing ground for presidential hopefuls comes as he has been actively weighing when he might formally launch another White House campaign. The debate, according to people familiar with the discussions, centers on whether to make a formal announcement later this summer or fall or, in accordance with tradition, wait until after the November midterm elections.
While allies insist he has yet to make a final decision about his plans, Trump for months has been broadcasting his intentions, and continued to tease them Friday.
“One of the most urgent tasks facing the next Republican president — I wonder who that will be,” Trump said at one point, prompting a standing ovation and chants of “USA!”
“Would anybody like me to run for president?” he asked the crowd, unleashing more cheers.
Ralph Reed, chair of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, said that, for now, “We don’t know whether or not he will run, although certainly given his speech, I think he wanted to let everybody know that that is his plan.”
Trump has spent the past year and a half holding rallies, delivering speeches and using his endorsements to exact revenge and further shape the party in his image. But some supporters say the former president, who has decamped from his Florida Mar-a-Lago club to Bedminster, New Jersey, for the summer, is also growing impatient.
While he has relished his role as a party kingmaker — with candidates all but begging for his endorsement and racking up large tabs at fundraisers in his ballrooms — Trump also misses the days when he was actually king, especially as he watches Democratic President Joe Biden struggle with low approval ratings and soaring inflation.
“I think a lot of Trump’s future plans are directly based on Biden, and I think the more Biden continues to stumble on the world stage and on the domestic stage, people forget about the downside, the dark side of Trump’s presidency,” said Bryan Lanza, a GOP strategist and former Trump campaign official.
An announcement in the near future could complicate efforts by other ambitious Republicans to mount their own campaigns. Former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley, who was ambassador to the United Nations under Trump, for instance, has said she wouldn’t run against him.
And there also are concerns that a near-term announcement could hurt Republicans going into the final stretch of a midterm congressional campaign that appears increasingly favorable to the party. A Trump candidacy could unite otherwise despondent Democratic voters, reviving the energy that lifted the party in the 2018 and 2020 campaigns.
Republicans want the November election to be framed as a referendum on the first two years of Biden’s presidency. They don’t want anything, including Trump, to throw them off that trajectory.
Regardless of his decision, the aura of inevitability that Trump sought to create from the moment he left the White House has been punctured. A long list of other Republicans have been laying the groundwork for their own potential campaigns and some have made clear that a Trump candidacy would have little influence on their own decisions.
They include Trump’s former vice president, Mike Pence, who has been hailed by the Jan. 6 committee as someone who put the national interest ahead of his own political considerations.
Eyeing a White House bid, Pence is maintaining a brisk political schedule focused on drawing attention to Democratic vulnerabilities. But his challenges were put into stark relief Friday, as Trump continued to blast him for failing to go along with his scheme to overturn the results of the 2020 election.
While he denied ever calling Pence a wimp, Trump railed against his former vice president Friday, saying, “Mike did not have the courage to act.” That drew applause from a crowd that Pence, himself an Evangelical Christian, has spoken before numerous times.
Reed, who described himself as “a dear friend” of Pence, declined to comment on the rift, but said Pence had been invited to the appear at the conference. “If Mike Pence wanted to come and wanted to offer a rejoinder to these folks, he could have done it,” he said.
Beyond Pence, other possible candidates including Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie have also indicated their decisions do not rest on Trump’s. And others are making moves, including Trump’s former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Florida Sen. Rick Scott and South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, who were all appearing at the conference, and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is seen by many loyal Trump supporters as the future of his movement.
Though it’s increasingly clear that Trump wouldn’t march to the GOP nomination unchallenged, a large field of candidates could still work to his advantage. The dynamic is beginning to resemble the 2016 campaign, when Trump faced a large and unwieldy group of candidates who split the anti-Trump vote.
“We’re going to be in pretty uncharted waters,” said Reed. “So I would tend to think that that will not be the same kind of primary as, say, ‘16 was. It would seem to me that he’d be potentially stronger in that primary by having been a former president and having had this record. … On the other hand, it is not 2020. He’s going to have a primary. And he won’t be the incumbent president. And depending on who chooses to run, it’s going to be different for him, too. He’s going to have to make case to those voters.”
Indeed, despite the audience cheers, many of those attending the conference voiced skepticism about a third Trump run.
“I don’t know. The jury’s still out with me,” said Jonathan Goodwin, a minister who works as a Faith and Freedom organizer in South Carolina. “I like him, but I think he shot himself in the foot too many times”
Goodwin said he “definitely” had his own concerns about the 2020 election but didn’t support how Trump had handled the situation. “I think he should have bowed out gracefully,” he said, “whether it was rigged or not.”
Illinois conservative Pam Roehl, who arrived at the conference Friday wearing a red Trump baseball cap and “Trump 2020” necklace, said she still supports the former president, but increasingly finds herself in the minority among friends who have moved on, discarding their bumper stickers and embracing DeSantis.
“They’re like kind of: ’Get with the program. Why aren’t you backing DeSantis?‘” she said.