CPAC attendees remain unsure of Donald Trump after divisive 2016 election season

The activists who will gather in suburban Maryland this week for the Conservative Political Action Conference are thrilled to have control of all the political levers of power in Washington — but are still not entirely sure about the shotgun marriage they’ve been forced into with the man at the top, President Trump.

“We would characterize it as hopeful but wary,” said Tim Phillips, president of Americans for Prosperity, a conservative activist group that sat out of the presidential race last year.

Usually the party that lacks the White House is undergoing an identity crisis while the party with the Oval Office tamps down on those kinds of divisive fights and rallies behind the president.

Not so this year, when the GOP is facing just as much of an identity struggle as Democrats.

Charlie Gerow, first vice chairman of the American Conservative Union, which hosts CPAC, agreed that an apt description could be conservatives feeling out how to deal with the guy they didn’t necessarily want to go to the dance with getting elected prom king.

“For most conservatives it’s an evolving process,” Mr. Gerow said. “But it’s moving much more quickly than some thought it would, and I think most conservatives are fully on board but are still cautious. They’re going to watch and be very vigilant to make sure that the Trump administration steers a conservative course.”

Mr. Trump is scheduled to speak to the gathering Friday. Vice President Mike Pence, who is a more traditional fit for the CPAC crowd, will also speak, as will top White House aides Reince Priebus, Stephen Bannon, Kellyanne Conway and Sebastian Gorka.

During last year’s campaign many parts of the conservative movement were wary of Mr. Trump, pointing to past comments on everything from pro-choice beliefs to a willingness to flex government powers of eminent domain on behalf of businesses.

But Mr. Trump vowed to adhere to pro-life principles, released a list of prominent conservative judges he would consider for the Supreme Court and entered Election Day with a fairly unified conservative movement.

Morton Blackwell, an ACU board member and longtime Republican National Committeeman from Virginia, said he expects Mr. Trump to continue patching over differences and trying to make inroads with the conservative activists at CPAC.

“I think that dancing with the ones who got him here is a very good strategy for Trump, and I think that’s what he’s going to follow,” said Mr. Blackwell, who originally supported Sen. Ted Cruz for president. “Virtually everybody who will be there this week voted for Trump and were delighted that he beat Hillary, and that hasn’t changed.”

Alan Gottlieb, chairman of the Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms, said the gun rights crowd is happily embracing the political about-face in Washington after eight years of President Obama — a contrast made even sharper after it looked like Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton was on her way to defeating Mr. Trump.

“And all of a sudden, boom, that wasn’t the case,” said Mr. Gottlieb, also an ACU board member. “I think it lit a fire under gun rights activists that hey, we can really go on the offensive now, and the energy levels are pumped and really high. And it went from a state of depression, so to speak, to a state of euphoria.”

Mr. Trump had been a frequent guest at CPAC in recent years, but he skipped last year’s gathering to campaign and finished a distant third in the event’s 2016 presidential straw poll behind Mr. Cruz and Sen. Marco Rubio.

Indeed, Mr. Cruz was the early first choice in 2016 for many movement conservatives, who argued that nominating comparatively moderate presidential candidates like Sen. John McCain in 2008 and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney in 2012 caused many in the grass roots to stay home on Election Day.

But now, with Republicans in full control of Washington, Mr. Trump is the one joined at the hip for the foreseeable future with the conservative movement and the GOP’s majorities in Congress.

“It’s a very different kind of energy that exists when you are the party in the majority than when you are the party in opposition,” Mr. Gerow said. “Instead of being concerned about the direction of the country and fighting against bad policy, you’re able to promote good policies, and that’s a very different kind of enthusiasm and energy than you find in trying to deflect things that don’t work for the country.”

But House Speaker Paul D. Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, the Republicans most crucial to seeing Mr. Trump’s agenda enacted on Capitol Hill, won’t be there this week. With lawmakers out of town on a weeklong recess, Mr. McConnell’s office cited a scheduling conflict, and Mr. Ryan was keeping busy as well with a visit to the U.S.-Mexico border on Wednesday.

Mr. Cruz will speak, as will Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and businesswoman Carly Fiorina, who also challenged Mr. Trump for the GOP nomination last year.

However, Mr. Rubio and Sen. Rand Paul, two other presidential contenders and past CPAC favorites, will not be there, with their offices also citing scheduling conflicts.

Organizers this week also had to deal with a snafu when they disinvited provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos as a featured speaker after old clips emerged of the former Breitbart News editor speaking at length about relationships between young children and adults. Mr. Yiannopoulos later clarified that he opposes pedophilia, but ended up resigning from Breitbart and losing a book deal amid the fallout.

Though he has denied ties, Mr. Yiannopoulos has also been associated with the ethnonationalist “alt-right” movement that gained notoriety during the presidential campaign last year.

ACU Chairman Matt Schlapp said this week the alt-right doesn’t have anything to do with the conservative movement, and Executive Director Dan Schneider is scheduled to address that issue Thursday in a segment advertised as “The Alt-Right Ain’t Right at All.”

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