In a statement minutes later, Trump’s campaign said that the candidate had scheduled a Saturday speech in Wichita, hours before Kansas’s competitive caucuses begin.
“He will also be speaking at the Kansas Caucus and then departing for Orlando, Florida and a crowd of approximately 20,000 people or more,” Trump’s campaign announced. “Because of this, he will not be able to speak at CPAC as he has done for many consecutive years. Mr. Trump would like to thank Matt Schlapp and all of the executives at CPAC and looks forward to returning next year, hopefully as President of the United States.”
But even a glance around the halls of the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center in National Harbor, Md., suggested that Trump was heading for a disaster. He was scheduled to speak at 8:30 a.m., kicking off a day often sapped of energy by activists straggling in after sleeping off their Friday nights. He was likely to confront a protest or walkout from some activists, including one led by William Temple, a tea party activist who had led a buzzy walkout of Jeb Bush’s 2015 speech.
“We planned one,” said Ben Howe, a contributing editor at RedState. “Looks like he heard about it.”
He was also more than likely to face an unfamiliar sight on the Trump trail: a half-empty room. Trump’s Secret Service protection would have mandated a security checkpoint, and the one laid out for Ben Carson on Friday created a traffic snarl, with activists lining up for 30 minutes or more.
By noon, as the ACU announced Trump’s decision to quit the conference, the Potomac Ballroom where the largest events were held was still half-empty, hundreds of activists still in line as Tea Party Patriots co-founder Jenny Beth Martin gave the first sustained criticism of Trump, as an egomaniac who altered his positions to fool voters.
“I know Donald Trump says he loves the tea party but that’s not what it takes to be tea party,” said Martin, who has endorsed Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) for president.
In the run-up to CPAC, as the Republican front-runner’s stumbling answers about the KKK fueled a #NeverTrump campaign, some activists asked the ACU to disinvite Trump. Matt Schlapp, the Bush administration veteran who now runs the organization, declined.
Had that effort succeeded, it would have echoed the last-minute decision of then-RedState editor Erick Erickson to boot Trump from the August 2015 RedState Gathering in Atlanta. The cause was Trump’s irate CNN interview about the first Republican debate, in which he muttered that moderator Megyn Kelly had “blood coming out of her … wherever.” To Erickson, it sounded like misogyny, and a cause to write him off his corner of the conservative movement.
On Super Tuesday, Trump handily won the Georgia primary.
As news of Trump's decision circulated through CPAC, disappointed Trump fans were outmatched by the indifferent or the relieved. "Oh, who cares, it's not like he's a conservative anyway," said Kyle Foley, 28, a musician from Austin. "It doesn't matter. This doesn't seem like a place he'd want to be, and I doubt too many people will mind that he won't be here. He just isn't a nice person, and this is in his character to cancel last minute."
Gene McIlhone, 62, a rider with a motorcycle ministry, called Trump's decision a "surprise," but sensible.
"I guess he doesn't pretend to be a conservative and is trying to appeal to everyone," he said. "But I don't care. I want to build the damn wall. He's appealing to a lot of conservatives even if he isn't one, exactly."
McIlhone had preferred Ben Carson to Trump, and would see the former neurosurgeon give what was expected to be his final speech as a candidate for president later on Friday.
Zachary Sylvester, 20, who had traveled to CPAC from Maine and sported a "Hillary for Prison" sticker, was more upset.
"I feel like this would have been a good chance for him to solidify his message and make better statements about why he's running," said Sylvester, who considered himself a moderate. "It's time for him to act more moderate and think about winning the general."