By WILL STEAKIN and LIBBY CATHEY, ABC News
(WASHINGTON) — Seven weeks after an emboldened pro-Trump mob stormed the U.S. Capitol in an effort to stop the certification of the 2020 election results, the Conservative Political Action Conference being held this week in Orlando, Florida, is shaping up to be an event that leans into the 2020 election conspiracy theories rather than rebukes them.
The influential annual right-wing conference will host former President Donald Trump’s first public appearance since leaving office last month, as Trump continues to push baseless claims that the election was “rigged” and “stolen.”
Trump’s speech in Orlando is set to focus on the future of the Republican Party and President Joe Biden’s immigration policy, a source familiar with the plans told ABC News. However, Trump very rarely sticks to the script — and a series of friendly TV interviews last week in which he continued to claim that he won the election suggests that the former president is still itching to relitigate his 2020 loss.
And while Republicans are gearing up for the 2022 midterm elections, CPAC will feature panels packed with speakers who were on the front lines pushing to overturn the 2020 election results based on discredited conspiracy theories that helped fuel the Jan. 6 attack. The conference is run each year by American Conservative Union chairman Matt Schlapp, who himself helped lead the former president’s effort to overturn the election results.
The speaker list has already sparked controversy in the days leading up to the event, leading the convention — which this year has the theme “America Uncanceled” — to cancel an appearance by conservative YouTuber Young Pharaoh over anti-Semitic comments posted online.
“We have just learned that someone we invited to CPAC has expressed reprehensible views that have no home with our conference or our organization,” CPAC officials said on Twitter. “The individual will not be participating at our conference.”
Pharaoh responded on Twitter after the announcement, calling the decision “#CENSORSHIP AT ITS BEST!”
Agenda on ‘protecting elections’
Over the four-day event, CPAC will feature a seven-part series of panels on “protecting elections,” according to a newly released schedule. The series will include a presentation by former Congressman and Fox News contributor Jason Chaffetz titled “The Left Pulled the Strings, Covered It Up, and Even Admits It,” and another titled “Other Culprits: Why Judges & Media Refused to Look at the Evidence,” featuring Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.), a leading voice in Congress who supported Trump’s efforts to overturn the election results and told the crowd at the Jan. 6 rally to “start taking down names and kicking ass.”
When asked for details about the conference’s agenda, CPAC spokesperson Ian Walters referred ABC News to a Time magazine article on the aftermath of the election, which does not provide evidence of widespread voter fraud or the election being “stolen” as Trump and his allies have claimed, but instead focuses on what it describes as a “vast, cross-partisan campaign to protect the election.”
Walters did not respond to follow-up questions about speakers scheduled to appear and other specific panels.
Over the weekend the conference also announced the addition of featured speaker Cleta Mitchell, a longtime conservative lawyer who, as one of the former president’s attorneys, was on the Jan. 2 hour-long phone call when Trump urged Georgia election officials to “find” enough votes to overturn the state’s presidential results. Earlier this month, the Georgia Secretary of State’s office announced it had formally launched an investigation into Trump’s phone calls to state election officials.
Jenny Beth Martin, co-founder of the Tea Party Patriots, is also scheduled as a featured speaker this week. Martin, who attended “Stop the Steal” rallies leading up the Jan. 6 Capitol attack, tweeted, “We will not allow them to steal this election!” and shared images from a Nov. 21 “Stop the Steal” rally in Atlanta.
Another speaker slated to appear, Angela Stanton-King, has a history of pushing conspiracy theories linked to QAnon — and just days after the Capitol attack she posted a photo pushing the baseless conspiracy that the riot was “staged.”
Others who worked closely with the former president and his team following the 2020 election are also set to appear, including former Trump campaign adviser David Bossie, who briefly led the president’s post-election legal effort and is set to speak on a panel titled “Shining a Light on the Left’s 2020 Shadow Campaign.” Following the election, Bossie held a press conference in Phoenix along with Arizona Republican Party Chairwoman Kelli Ward, where they complained about Fox News calling Arizona for Biden.
Former Nevada Attorney General Adam Laxalt, a loyal Trump supporter and the co-chair of the Trump campaign in Nevada, will also speak on a “protecting elections” panel. Laxalt, who was at the forefront of efforts to overturn the election in Nevada, appeared at a news conference in Las Vegas pushing allegations of widespread voter fraud alongside CPAC’s own Matt Schlapp and former acting Trump intelligence chief Ric Grenell, who will also speak at CPAC this week.
Appearing on CNN Monday night, just days before the start of the conference, Schlapp reiterated his stance that the election had been stolen, despite Trump and his allies suffering legal losses in 60 election-related cases.
“Just because you fail in court doesn’t mean you don’t have a good case,” Schlapp told CNN.
Schlapp, the husband of longtime Trump aide Mercedes Schlapp, was rewarded for his loyalty during Trump’s last weeks in office with a seat on the Library of Congress Trust Fund Board. Schlapp’s lobbying firm reportedly brought in $750,000 in the last two weeks of 2020 to lobby for a presidential pardon for Parker Petit — but Trump did not grant the request before leaving office.
Several other CPAC speakers this year worked with the “Stop the Steal” group to protest the election results at events around the country, including political commentator Shemeka Michelle, conservative activist Scott Presler, and Rep. Paul Gosar.
David Bostic, an organizer for “Stop the Steal,” posted on social media that he also plans to attend CPAC this week. A close ally of “Stop the Steal” leader Ali Alexander, Bostic downplayed the Capitol attack that followed the rally, tweeting, “If you’re calling a couple hundred agitators entering the US Capitol a ‘coup’ then you are dumb.”
COVID-19 looms for second year
Last year’s CPAC, held at its usual location in Maryland, took place as the novel coronavirus was just starting to spread across the country — and within a week, the event became ground zero for the infection of Washington’s political world.
On March 7, a week after the event, the American Conservative Union confirmed that an unnamed attendee had tested positive for COVID-19 after coming in direct contact with Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), Reps. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.) and Doug Collins (R-Ga.), and incoming White House chief of staff Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), prompting all of them to self-quarantine.
Now, more than a year into the pandemic, the Maryland resort that usually hosts the event is temporarily closed due to COVID-19 — so the event is being held this year in Florida, where state officials have pushed back against numerous COVID-19 protocols.
According to both a CPAC spokesperson and a Hyatt spokesperson, the conference will operate in lockstep with Orange County ordinances that require facial coverings with rare exceptions. Masks will be provided for guests who don’t have them, and if an attendee refuses to comply, they will be asked to return to their room or to leave the event entirely.
Several speakers, including the former president, South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, and freshman Rep. Lauren Boebert, have flouted mask restrictions and defended those who have refused to wear them.
This year’s event comes just days after the U.S. surpassed half a million COVID-19 deaths.
The conference is scheduled to take place Thursday through Sunday, with Trump scheduled to speak on the final day.
As in 2020, Trump will arrive at the event fresh off an impeachment acquittal by the U.S. Senate — but for the first time in four years, he won’t be attending as president.
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