The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

At conservative conference, Trump’s election falsehoods flourish

Supporters cheer as former secretary of state Mike Pompeo speaks during the Conservative Political Action Conference at the Hyatt Regency Orlando on Saturday in Orlando. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

ORLANDO — Right Side Broadcasting Network was streaming the Conservative Political Action Conference, and the content was becoming a problem. One of the weekend's first panels had brought a lawyer for Donald Trump's 2020 campaign together with other anti-"voter fraud" crusaders, and they suggested that Nevada's election was stolen for the Democrats.

“We must jump in here and make a small disclosure: We want you to do your own research,” broke in Brian Glenn, a host at the conservative streaming network.

The Republican Party on display at CPAC this weekend was anti-monopoly, anti-free trade, skeptical of foreign wars, girded for economic conflict with China — and frequently invested in things that aren’t true.

Election myths were mentioned often, though rarely the damage they’d led to on Jan. 6, when hordes of Trump supporters fueled by the falsehoods and seeking to block Joe Biden’s election stormed the Capitol.

Some conservatives tried to advance the issue by laying out voting restrictions they said would solve problems — ones that did not mar November’s election — or condemned a Democratic voting bill expected to pass next month.

More frequently, they suggested that the election had not been honest — a topic that spilled from panel to panel, fact or no fact.

During the panel that Right Side broke away from, Jesse Binnall, an attorney who represented Trump’s campaign in Nevada, insisted that they’d found 40,000 double-voters and 1,500 ballots cast by dead people, claims that a state judge in Carson City said were unsubstantiated.

Fox News commentator Deroy Murdock, who joined that panel, said in a separate speech Friday that “mysterious late-night ballot dumps” had erased Trump’s lead in key states; in reality, those large Biden margins from urban counties matched Democratic performances in other recent elections. On the panel, Murdock repeated the myth that every Trump lawsuit had been dismissed for procedural, not factual, reasons; actually, judges in Nevada, Wisconsin and Arizona had ruled against election challengers on the merits, saying the supposed evidence provided did not hold up to scrutiny.

Another unofficial panel, led by a group that hosted a gold-colored statue of Trump at its booth, was closed to most media. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, who falsely claimed last month that “President Trump won here in Georgia,” was among the guests seen entering the room Saturday.

As that panel unfolded, a breakout session hosted by Republican election lawyers and a Georgia county GOP chair found questioners and panelists debating which of the fraud theories they could believe.

Marci McCarthy, a DeKalb County GOP official, suggested that Democratic groups had suppressed votes by “telling Republicans to stay home” — an argument made by Lin Wood, an attorney who worked on some of the unsuccessful lawsuits to overturn state elections. When one attendee suggested that voting machines in Texas had flipped votes, attorney Charlie Spies jumped in to refute her.

“I may get booed offstage for this, but that’s simply not true,” Spies said, talking over some heckling as he explained that a popular baseless claim about rigged machines in Michigan was false. “Let’s win the elections and not worry about things that aren’t true.”

Four more panels on election rules were scheduled for Sunday, including a discussion of “failed states” with Rep. Mike Kelly of Pennsylvania, who led a lawsuit to throw out all 2.5 million of the state’s absentee ballots.

On day one of the Conservative Political Action Conference in Orlando, the audience heckled directors who asked them to wear masks in line with hotel rules. (Video: Reuters)

Trump’s feuds with election officials and social media companies have become the conservative movement’s causes, as the weekend demonstrated. Trump will make his first post-White House speech at the conference on Sunday.

A regular sub-theme for Trump loyalists was censorship; left unspoken was that various politicians, including Trump, were kicked off social media platforms for repeatedly spreading falsehoods about the election.

“If they can censor him, they can censor any American citizen,” said Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri, who got a standing ovation on Friday when he talked about contesting Pennsylvania’s electoral votes on Jan. 6. “I said, we ought to have a debate about election integrity. What was the result of that?”

Before anyone else could answer, Hawley did: “I was called a traitor.”

Some of the event’s sponsors told attendees about new social networks where they could escape post-Jan. 6 limits on their speech, or anecdotes that could validate their election doubts. Gemki Fujii, a Japanese conservative activist who paid for ads and a booth at the conference, said in a video that Americans needed to form a “samurai-to-samurai alliance” with Asian conservatives after the 2020 election was “stolen” on behalf of “the Chinese Communist Party.”

The reality of the coronavirus pandemic was also glided over. One year after Vice President Mike Pence told CPAC that the risk of mass coronavirus infections “remains low,” a conference found itself shrunken by limits on indoor gathering. Some attendees made statements with their mandatory gear, with messages like “This Mask is as Useless as Joe Biden,” “Social(ism) Distancing,” or, more frequently, “Trump 2024.”

One jarringly surreal note came from Rep. Roger Williams of Texas, comparing conditions at the time of last year’s conference with the 2021 version.

“One year ago, we had more jobs than people,” Williams said. “This president has gone in there and just gutted everything.” He did not mention the pandemic.

The treatment of both the election results and the pandemic went to prove the same point: that Trump’s brio had made Republicans win again — even when they lost. Buttons portrayed Trump as the Terminator, with the caption “I’ll be back.” The conference’s annual straw poll, which typically combines policy questions with a presidential ballot test, asks two 2024 questions this year: Whom the attendee would support if Trump runs, and whom they’d support if he doesn’t.

Democratic control of Washington loomed over the conference, but not in the way it once might have. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (Calif.) was one of the only guests who mentioned the $1.9 trillion pandemic relief package that House Democrats passed Saturday morning. (McCarthy, focusing on the GOP’s strong 2020 House performance, said that “President Trump worked on all those races.”)

Displays of anti-Biden sentiment were fairly rare, as the new president had not attained the boogeyman status of former president Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton, who galvanized the right.

“I can’t give the Biden stuff away,” said David Solomon, a “MAGA” merchandise seller whose post-election shirt designs included Biden with a Hitler-style mustache and the message “Not My Dictator.”

Conspiratorial elements did not begin with Trump, but before his tenure they had been relegated to side rooms or fringe candidacies. One term later, that had changed. The elements Trump had encouraged also burned outside the Hyatt where CPAC gathered.

On Friday night, white nationalist activist Nick Fuentes convinced Rep. Paul A. Gosar of Arizona to speak at his America First Political Action Conference, an event with no ties to CPAC but with some shared attendance. When Gosar was finished, Fuentes spent 67 minutes mocking a disabled member of Congress, calling the Jan. 6 riots “awesome” and demanding protection for the country’s “White demographic core.”

Gosar, one of the leaders of the push to overturn Arizona’s presidential election, distanced himself from Fuentes on Saturday, condemning “White racism” during his appearance onstage. In an interview, Gosar explained that he had attended the Friday event after being convinced he could reach a new, energetic audience that might be interested in his advocacy for stricter immigration laws and election integrity.

“There is a group of young people that are becoming part of the election process and becoming a bigger force,” Gosar said. “So why not take that energy and listen to what they’ve got to say?”

Amy E. Gardner contributed to this report.