WASHINGTON — In his first return to Washington since Joe Biden ousted him from the White House, former President Donald Trump vigorously repeated the false election-fraud claims that sparked the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection. In a dueling speech not far away, his former vice president, Mike Pence, implored the Republican Party to move on from Trump's defeat.
The separate appearances marked an intensifying rivalry between the onetime partners as both eye potential presidential runs. And they put on clear display the party divisions between Trump loyalists who refuse to accept the results of the 2020 and other Republicans who believe the party should instead focus on the future.
Federal and state election officials from both parties and Trump’s own attorney general have said there is no credible evidence the 2020 election was tainted. The former president’s allegations of fraud were also roundly rejected by courts, including by judges he appointed.
But Trump continued to deny his loss as he made his first appearance in the nation’s capital since Jan. 20, 2021, when President Joe Biden was sworn into office despite Trump’s frantic efforts to remain in power.
“It was a catastrophe that election,” Trump declared about a mile from the White House he once called home. He addressed a summit organized by a group of former White House officials and Cabinet members who have been crafting an agenda for a possible second Trump administration.
In a nod to a 2024 presidential campaign that he’s increasingly teasing, Trump said “we may just have to do it again.”
Pence, once Trump's loyal vice president, spoke Tuesday morning at a separate conference where he outlined his own “Freedom Agenda” and made his case that conservatives should stop looking backward.
“Some people may choose to focus on the past, but elections are about the future,” Pence said in an address to Young America’s Foundation, a student conservative group. “I believe conservatives must focus on the future to win back America. We can’t afford to take our eyes off the road in front of us because what’s at stake is the very survival of our way of life.”
Trump, too, said America's survival was at stake. In a speech billed as focused on public safety, he said the country was in imminent danger from crime. Among his proposals, he called for executing drug dealers, sending the homeless to tent cities on the outskirts of towns and expanding his Southwest border wall.
Biden joined in — on Twitter — dismissing Trump's claim to have been a law-and-order president.
Referring to the Capitol riot, he tweeted, “I don’t think inciting a mob that attacks a police officer is ‘respect for the law.’ You can’t be pro-insurrection and pro-cop – or pro-democracy, or pro-American.”
Trump, in his remarks, spent plenty of time airing his usual grievances.
“If I renounced my beliefs, if I agreed to stay silent, if I stayed home and just took it easy, the persecution of Donald Trump would stop immediately,” he said. “But that’s not what I will do.”
The dueling appearances came as Trump's potential rivals have been increasingly brazen in their wiliness to directly criticize the man who remains a dominating force in the Republican Party. The former White House partners also campaigned for rival candidates in Arizona on Friday. And their Tuesday speeches came amid news that Pence's former chief of staff, Marc Short, testified before a federal grand jury investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, assault on the U.S. Capitol.
Short was at the Capitol that day as Pence fled an angry mob of rioters who called for his hanging after Trump wrongly insisted Pence had the power to overturn the election results.
Pence has repeatedly defended his actions that day, even as his decision to stand up to his boss turned large swaths of Trump's loyal base against him. Polls show that Trump remains, by far, the top choice of GOP primary voters, with Pence far behind.
That contrast was on display Tuesday as Trump spoke before an audience of hundreds of cheering supporters gathered for the America First Policy Institute's two-day America First Agenda Summit. The group is widely seen as an “administration in waiting” that could quickly move to the West Wing if Trump should run again and win.
The event had the feel of a Trump White House reunion — but one without Pence.
Pence, meanwhile, received a friendly — but less exuberant — welcome from the students, who struggled to break into a “USA!" chant.
In his remarks, he repeatedly touted the “Trump-Pence administration." But the first question he received during a brief question-and-answer session was about his growing split with Trump, which is particularly stark given the years he spent as the former president's most loyal sidekick.
Pence denied the two “differ on issues,” but acknowledged, “we may differ on focus."
“I truly do believe that elections are about the future and that it’s absolutely essential, at a time when so many Americans are hurting and so many families are struggling, that we don’t give way to the temptation to look back,” he said.
Trump has spent much of his time since leaving office spreading lies about his loss to sow doubt about Biden's victory. Indeed, even as the House Jan. 6 committee has been laying bare his attempts to remain in power and his refusal to call off a violent mob of his supporters as they tried to halt the peaceful transition of power, Trump has continued to try to pressure officials to overturn Biden's win, despite there being no legal means to decertify it.
Beyond the summit, the America First Policy Institute has been making preparations for another possible Trump administration, “making sure we do have the policies, personnel and process nailed down for every key agency when we do take the White House back," said its president, Brooke Rollins.
The group is one of several Trump-allied organizations that have continued to push his polices in his absence, including America First Legal, dedicated to fighting Biden's agenda through the court system, the Center for Renewing America and the Conservative Partnership Institute.
Also on Tuesday, Simon & Schuster announced the title of Pence’s upcoming book, “So Help Me God,” which will be published in November. The publisher said the book would, in part, chronicle “President Trump’s severing of their relationship on January 6, 2021,when Pence kept his oath to the Constitution.”