ORLANDO, Fla. - In his first public address since leaving office, Donald Trump gave the keynote address Sunday at the Conservative Political Action Conference. His return to the public eye comes at a time in which the Republican Party is still searching for its identity since the end of his presidency.
Trump took the stage just before 5 p.m. ET, more than an hour after his address was set to begin. He spoke for more than an hour, mostly on the future of the party and the country. He also repeated unsubstantiated claims that the 2020 election was rigged and stolen from him.
Trump even remarked he is going to "beat the Democrats a third time" - essentially insinuating he "won" the 2020 election and will win a third time if he were to run again.
His address confronted a deeply-divided Republican Party, which first clashed over the unfounded election fraud claims, then his historic second impeachment. Within the first few minutes of his speech, Trump addressed the party's divide and committed to staying in the Republican Party rather than starting his own.
"We're not starting new parties. They kept saying, 'He's going to start a brand new party,' - we have the Republican party, it's going to unite and be stronger than ever before. I am not starting a new party. That was fake news," he said. "Fake news. Wouldn't that be brilliant? Let's divide our vote so that you can never win? No. We're not interested in that."
He also walked right up to the line of announcing another campaign without actually committing.
"With your help, we will take back the House. We will win the Senate, and then a Republican president will make a triumphant return to the White House - and I wonder who that will be," he said in his final moments on stage as the crowd cheered. "Who? Who? Who will that be? I wonder."
"Standing before you today, I am supremely confident that for our movement, for our party and for our country our brightest days are just ahead. And that together we will make America prouder, freer, stronger and greater than it ever has been before," he concluded.
Some Republicans, such as Rep. Liz Cheney, have been vocally opposed to Trump maintaining a grip on the party. When asked if Trump should be speaking at CPAC, the Wyoming Republican said it was up to organizers, but she has been clear on her views on the former president since the deadly riot at the Capitol on Jan. 6, which has been blamed on Trump.
"I don't believe that he should be playing a role in the future of the party or the country," Cheney said.
Trump took a dig at Cheney Sunday in his remarks.
"And of course the war-mongerer, a person that loves seeing our troops fighting - Liz Cheney," he said. "The good news is that in her state, she's been censured and in her state, her polls numbers have dropped faster than any human being that I've seen. So hopefully, they'll get rid of her for the next election."
A large portion of the party has demonstrated loyalty to Trump since he departed the White House. And this year’s CPAC event has acted as a revolving door of sorts for Trump loyalists.
Much of the conference has been dedicated to the repeatedly debunked claims of widespread election fraud in last year’s election. Courts and election officials spent the bulk of the lame-duck session disproving such claims.
Still, a large mob of Trump’s supporters stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6 chanting "Fight for Trump" and "Stop the steal."
A week later, the House of Representatives impeached Trump again — this time for incitement of insurrection.
He avoided conviction in the Senate trial, but seven Republicans joined Democrats in voting to convict. None of them were invited to CPAC this year, and neither were the House Republicans who voted to impeach.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who regularly attends CPAC, was also not at this year’s event.
Although he voted to acquit Trump in his second impeachment trial, McConnell immediately followed the acquittal by publicly chastising Trump, laying the blame at his feet.
"There is no question, none, that President Trump is practically and morally responsible for provoking the event of that day," McConnell said.
This story was reported from Detroit and Atlanta.