ORLANDO, Fla. – The former president’s “big lie” that he actually won the last election has been refuted by judges, Republican elections officials around the country, even Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell — yet it remained an article of faith at the nation’s largest gathering of self-described conservatives.
Among attendees and featured speakers alike at the Conservative Political Action Conference’s setup at the Hyatt Regency, the notion that Donald Trump actually won reelection on Nov. 3 but it was stolen from him in a conspiracy involving voting machine manufacturers, state and federal judges (and, in some versions, Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg) was treated as fact.
“It was a rigged election, and our votes were stolen,” said Anne Marie Michaels, a cooking blogger from Austin, Texas, who rattled off the names of Dominion and Smartmatic voting machines and then explained that global bankers were behind the entire plan. “If we have our votes stolen, we have no republic.”
Trump began claiming that he had won the race in the wee hours of election night, and continued lying about it up to and during the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol — which he incited in a last-gasp attempt to remain in power. He brought the lie to CPAC on Sunday, where he gave his first public speech since leaving the White House on Jan. 20, the day of Democratic President Joe Biden’s inauguration.
Just 13 minutes into his speech, Trump claimed, falsely, that Biden had actually lost the election, and suggested he would run again in 2024. “Actually, as you know they just lost the White House. I may even decide to beat them for a third time,” he told CPAC attendees.
“We won the election twice,” he said a half hour later.
And a half hour after that, Trump went into an extended tirade against the electoral system, accusing it of being “sick and corrupt” and alleging that “tens of millions” of ballots were sent out “indiscriminately” and that “illegal aliens and dead people are voting.”
“This election was rigged, and the Supreme Court and the other courts did not want to do anything about it,” he said, repeatedly lashing out at the high court for lacking the “courage” and the “guts” to help him.
Trump’s renewal of the election lie that led to the Capitol siege had already benefited from plenty of spadework over the course of the three-day conference.
A panel about elections called “Failed States (PA, GA, NV, oh my!)” stated Trump had expected to win but lost nevertheless.
Pennsylvania Rep. Mike Kelly claimed, falsely, that Democrats counted votes to determine how many they needed to forge and then “plussed them up” enough to win. And Amanda Milius, the producer of the movie “The Plot Against the President,” complained about Republicans who have urged those spreading Trump’s election falsehoods to stop. “That is an effort to silence us,” she said.
On Friday, Deroy Murdock of the National Review actually used Trump’s election lie to defend those who carried out the Jan. 6 insurrection. “The reason people stormed the Capitol is that they felt hopeless, because of a rigged election,” he said.
Not all of CPAC’s speakers pushed Trump’s lies. A Sunday morning panel led by Dan Schneider, executive director of the American Conservative Union, which hosts the conference, warned the audience not to spread absurd, obviously false conspiracy theories and instead work to prevent Democrats from passing laws designed to make it easier to vote, and urged conservatives to help make sure that their side was better funded in legal challenges.
“When we would go to court, the other side would have so many lawyers that they didn’t have enough chairs for them,” said J. Christian Adams, with the Public Interest Legal Foundation.
The previous afternoon, prominent Republican election lawyer Charlie Spies was heckled when he contradicted a questioner who asked how to prevent voting machines from flipping votes to Democratic candidates. “I may get booed offstage for this, but that’s simply not true,” Spies said.
But Spies’ comment was noteworthy primarily because it constituted apostasy against one of CPAC’s main themes.
Matt Schlapp, chairman of the ACU and a close ally of Trump, on Sunday yet again falsely claimed that “voter fraud” was the reason for his 7-million-vote loss. “CPAC is your first opportunity to see what really happened on election day,” he said, lying. “And there was widespread voter fraud in way too many states, most especially in big cities run by the Democrat machine. That is fact.”
How well the effort to pander to Trump and his hard-core supporters will translate to the broader electorate, though, remains unclear.
“I’ve watched this CPAC just as closely as every other year. I have absolutely no idea what’s going on,” said Terry Sullivan, a longtime GOP consultant who ran Florida Sen. Marco Rubio’s 2016 presidential campaign. “And neither does 99% of the rest of America.”
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article misquoted Tom Fitton of Judicial Watch as having said the left “rigged” the election; the word he used was “ruined.” The quote has been removed from the article.