Trump, at CPAC, claims Biden is to blame for Putin's invasion of Ukraine

Former President Donald Trump, speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) Saturday
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Former President Trump bashed President Biden for the nation's high inflation rates and gas prices and blamed him for Russia's unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, which he called "an outrage and an atrocity."

Echoing much-criticized comments from earlier in the week when he praised Russian President Vladimir Putin's intelligence, Trump reiterated that he thought the autocrat "smart."

"The real problem is that our leaders are dumb," Trump said, adding that the Russian leader "is playing Biden like a drum, and it's not a pretty thing to watch."

Trump also lauded Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who has drawn international praise for standing up to Russian aggression. The ex-president called the Ukrainian leader a "great man."

"We are praying for the proud people of Ukraine," said Trump, who in 2019 sought to pressure Zelensky to dig up political dirt on Biden in exchange for badly needed military aid, an incident that led to Trump's first impeachment.

Trump's speech in Orlando, Fla., at the Conservative Political Action Conference, known as CPAC, provided clues about how he would approach campaigning for the 2024 Republican nomination if he chooses to run, and whether he continues to maintain his grip on the Republican Party’s most ardent supporters.

The former president's 90-minute address, which was frequently interrupted by applause from an audience decked out in red MAGA gear, was filled with his typical laundry list of grievances, including false claims that the 2020 election had been stolen. He praised the truckers who blocked many streets in Canada's capital in protest of COVID-19 vaccine and mask mandates, criticized Democratic policies and attacked the first Black woman to be nominated to serve on the Supreme Court as a "radical left zealot."

Trump even hinted he had made up his mind about being a presidential candidate again.

"We did it twice, and we’ll do it again," said Trump, who has not formally announced he is running in 2024. "We're going to be doing it again a third time."

The annual confab of some of the Republican Party's most ardent activists also revealed how GOP presidential aspirants are grappling with the long shadow Trump casts over his party's politics. For the most part, they avoided focusing on the 2020 election and instead sought to exploit Biden's poor approval ratings, rising inflation and divisive cultural issues.

It's a strategy Republican Glenn Youngkin used last year to win Virginia's gubernatorial race. Republicans hope such tactics help them retake Congress, which is held by slim Democratic majorities.

The GOP leaders did not embrace Trump's praise of Putin and instead criticized Moscow for its unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, hailing Ukrainians who were battling Russian aggressors. Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who on Feb. 18 called Putin "an elegantly sophisticated counterpart" and otherwise praised the Russian leader, in his speech Friday described him as a dictator terrorizing the Ukrainian people.

Among those considered to be top-tier candidates if Trump doesn't run are Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas, Josh Hawley of Missouri and Marco Rubio of Florida. In speeches, all of them derided coronavirus-related restrictions and warned of the dangers of government being controlled by progressive Democrats.

Neither Hawley nor Rubio mentioned Trump in their speeches and mostly avoided talking about the 2020 election. They also did not praise Putin, who has been condemned by Western leaders for attacking Ukraine.

Rubio focused his fire on the risk posed by a Democratic-run government while praising the bravery of Ukrainians resisting Russia's attack.

“The people of Ukraine are inspiring to the world,” Rubio said.

Hawley briefly defended his decision to object to the certification of the 2020 election before lacing into Biden over a laundry list of what he described as major policy failures, including the chaotic pullout from Afghanistan and the administration's handling of immigration.

Like other speakers, Hawley also attacked Democrats over their purported support of critical race theory, a decades-old lens university academics use to examine how racial inequality and racism are historically embedded in American policies, legal systems and institutions. Many Republicans have appropriated the term to refer to a litany of hot-button culture war issues.

The president is "trying to shove critical race theory down our throats and in every aspect of our government. It's in the military, it's in government training, it's in our universities, all backed now by the power of the Biden administration," said Hawley.

DeSantis did not mention the former president in his 20-minute address on Thursday. Instead, the governor railed against the Biden administration's approach to the pandemic, saying he refused to let Florida become a “biomedical security state" or a "dystopia where people's freedoms are curtailed and their livelihoods are destroyed."

Like Hawley, DeSantis also warned attendees about the so-called dangers of critical race theory, immigration, high inflation rates and the spike in homicides around the country.

Those attending the convention are clearly still devoted to the former president. They wore Trump gear and waved Trump flags and carried bedazzled Trump purses. Even so, some attendees expressed interest in other speakers.

Jill Sessions, a resident of Lakeland, Fla., and candidate for the Polk County school board, expressed support for Trump but said her primary motivation for attending was to network with donors and watch DeSantis speak.

"I love our governor," said Sessions. "That's a politician who just speaks like a person. He's just common sense, and that's what I like."

On Sunday, conference organizers are expected to release the results of their annual straw poll, which has often signaled which presidential candidate the Republican base would back during the primaries.

A poll of registered Florida Republicans released Thursday by the Public Opinion Research Lab at the University of North Florida found DeSantis narrowly bested Trump in a hypothetical 2024 primary, with 44% favoring the governor over the former president. Forty-one percent of those polled said they'd vote for Trump, while 7% said they were undecided.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.