Former US President Donald Trump is returning to Washington on Tuesday for the first time since leaving office, delivering a speech hours after former Vice President Mike Pence, a potential 2024 rival, who called on the Republican Party to stop looking backward.
Trump’s appearance in the nation’s capital – his first trip back since Jan. 20, 2021, when President Joe Biden was sworn into office despite Trump’s frantic efforts to remain in power – comes as some who are mulling White House bids have been increasingly willing to challenge him directly. They include Pence, who on Tuesday outlined his “Freedom Agenda” not far from where Trump was to speak before an allied think tank that has been crafting an agenda for a possible second Trump term.
While the former president remains consumed by the election he falsely claims was stolen from him a year and a half ago, Pence again implored the party to look to the future as he mulls his own.
“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.”
The former White House partners were making dueling appearances again after campaigning for rival candidates in Arizona on Friday. Their separate speeches come 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 US 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 prepared to speak before an audience of hundreds gathered for the America First Policy Institute’s two-day America First Agenda Summit. Composed of former Trump administration officials and allies, 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 meeting – but one without Pence.
Pence, meanwhile, received a friendly – but not enthusiastic – welcome from the students, who struggled to break into a “USA!” chant.
In his remarks, he has repeatedly touted the “Trump-Pence administration.” But the first question he received 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.”
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 is the “most robust defense of the Trump record of anyone who served in the administration,” but also “chronicles President Trump’s severing of their relationship on January 6, 2021, when Pence kept his oath to the Constitution.”
Trump allies have urged him to spend more time talking about his vision for the future and less relitigating the 2020 election as he prepares to announce an expected 2024 White House campaign.
He 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.
In his speech Tuesday, Trump planned to focus on public safety, said his spokesperson, Taylor Budowich.
Republican Tommy Tuberville of Alabama said he’d be among several GOP senators planning to attend Trump’s speech.
“You’re going to hear the same thing that you hear at all the other speeches,” Tuberville told reporters at the Capitol. “But, you know, go down there and listen, as a lot of us will.”
Beyond the summit, staff at the America First Policy Institute have been laying their own groundwork for the future, “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 Brooke Rollins, its president.
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.
AP writer Lisa Mascaro contributed to this report