After a year, Trump holds firm grip on conservative movement

Vice President Mike Pence pauses as he speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), at National Harbor, Md., Thursday, Feb. 22, 2018. Pence said that in a meeting with governors at the White House Monday, they and Trump will “make the safety of our nation’s schools and our students our top national priority.” (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

By ZEKE MILLER, Associated Press
OXON HILL, Md. (AP) — Donald Trump’s outsider candidacy rattled the conservative movement. But more than a year into his presidency, the onetime Democrat now holds what seems to be a near-total grip.
The largest annual gathering of conservatives has all the looks of a Trump festival, with Republican critics absent from the event outside the nation’s capital.
Vice President Mike Pence addressed the Conservative Political Action Conference on Thursday, offering a defense of the Trump agenda and trying to rally activists for the fall elections.
“Your president and I need you to show up,” Pence told activists as he urged them to “defend all that we’ve accomplished.”
“It’s been a year of promises made and promises kept,” Pence added.
But a year in power has seen some of the enthusiasm around the gathering wane, with large swaths of empty space in a ballroom already narrowed from previous conferences.
Frequent past attendees such as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., are skipping the event, as is Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, the libertarian-leaning Republican who once brought massive followings of young people to the CPAC halls.
Even Steve Bannon was absent. The ex-White House chief strategist whose falling out with Trump cost him his perch atop the conservative Breitbart website has featured prominently at past gatherings.
“Clearly the interest is: What is Trump doing and what are their policies and what are they doing,” said Saul Anuzis, a longtime CPAC gadfly and GOP operative from Michigan.
Top government officials, Cabinet secretaries, outside allies and conservative media boosters dominate the CPAC agenda, with appearances by Labor Secretary Alex Acosta, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, White House counselor Kellyanne Conway and White House counsel Don McGahn.
The focus on Trump-ism marks a shift for an event that had long held itself up as a resolute advocate for conservative principles. During the George W. Bush administration, CPAC prominently featured criticism of the president’s economic and immigration proposals — particularly sounding the alarm on soaring deficits under his tenure.
There was no such criticism audible Thursday.
Sebastian Gorka, a former White House aide and Trump booster, explained the conversion onstage, saying that “the GOP is starting to understand that this president was only accidentally the GOP candidate.”
“He was the rank outsider, he owed nothing to the swamp,” he added of Trump, saying the rest of the party is “riding his coattails.”