Conservative critics of the administration, and most members of Congress, will be elsewhere. Even more than in 2017, when Senate confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Neil M. Gorsuch raised Republican spirits, this year’s conference, at the Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center in Maryland, is structured as a celebration of GOP power and Trump-style nationalism. House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) won’t be there; neither will Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), a sometime CPAC speaker before he became a critic of Trump.
“There’s no question that there are still people opposed to Trump,” said Matt Schlapp, the president of the American Conservative Union, which organizes CPAC. “But it’s not 50/50 — on TV they usually oversample the Trump critics. In all candor, most of those people, even if they don’t like Trump personally, have come to respect the fact that he’s governing on a conservative agenda.”
Like nearly every CPAC, the run-up has been marked by controversy. Dinesh D’Souza, an author and filmmaker who has promoted his work at previous conferences, won’t be speaking after the ACU called his tweets mocking students who have lobbied for gun control “indefensible.”
Wayne LaPierre, the fiery executive vice president of the National Rifle Association, will give his now-traditional speech; versions of the agenda put online this week left his name off, as a precaution against protests. On Wednesday, the conservative American Principles Project scrambled to change a panel on “suppression of conservative voices on social media” after the ACU barred Jim Hoft, the founder of the conspiracy-prone news site Gateway Pundit, from attending.
More controversial, among conservatives, is a prominent Thursday morning speaking slot — less than an hour after Pence — for Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, the youngest member of France’s far-right political dynasty. The announcement of Le Pen’s appearance made international news, in part because she had dramatically “quit” politics last year, and in part because her National Front party favors policies — universal health care, a lower retirement age — that are anathema to the U.S. conservative movement.
“I don’t see what makes Marion Le Pen a good representative of conservatism,” said Ben Shapiro, a conservative columnist, author, and sometime Trump critic who is speaking at CPAC. “I’m optimistic that young people are interested in conservatism, not just the faux philosophy of ‘nationalist populism.’ ”
Schlapp brushed off the controversy, saying that Le Pen, like Britain’s Nigel Farage, will give CPAC attendees a broader sense of what’s happening in conservative politics. Several panels and speakers will focus on the left’s perceived threats to free speech, on campus and elsewhere.
“I’m not personally close to her, but for three years in this job I’ve had people tell me that she represents a new voice in that country,” Schlapp said. “So we’re testing the waters, and we’re going to let her speak. I’m interested to hear her, but from who I’ve talked to and what I’ve read, she’s more aligned with conservatives than with her party.”
Beyond Trump’s speech, there will be several CPAC panels defending the president from accusations of wrongdoing. The conservative Capital Research Center will lead two discussions for those who want to “learn more about the entire Russian investigation and how it remains unsubstantiated,” and one of the conference’s main-stage panels will bring conservative reporters together to discuss “unmasking the deep state.”
Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee who has argued that it should investigate the Obama administration instead of Trump’s campaign, will give the conference’s closing address.
“Most of us believe we’ve wasted a year of our lives chasing down a story that has no basis in fact,” Schlapp said. “No, we’re not going to run down whether someone on the Trump campaign sent an email to someone with a Russian accent.”