America’s top conservatives gathered together in one place today for a high profile event. It quickly turned awkward due to the coronavirus restrictions.
Leading conservatives in the United States have gathered in Orlando, Florida for the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), where Donald Trump will return to the spotlight two days from now.
The former president is scheduled to speak on Sunday, US time. It will be his first public speech since he left office on January 20.
Today, however, Mr Trump’s eldest son Donald Jr was the star.
“How’s it going CPAC?” he asked, to a roar from the crowd, as he emerged on stage this afternoon.
“Or I heard someone earlier phrase it a little bit better. TPAC! That’s what it feels like, guys.”
He made a T shape with his hands to drive home the point.
Donald Jr brought up last night’s news that President Joe Biden had ordered airstrikes in Syria, targeting buildings used by Iranian-backed militias.
“Who would have thought that within 33 days, we’d be bombing the Middle East again?” he said.
The strikes, which reportedly killed at least 22 people, were launched in retaliation for militants’ rocket attacks on US targets in Iraq.
They have been criticised by some members of Mr Biden’s own party, including Senator Tim Kaine, who was Hillary Clinton’s nominee for vice president in 2016.
“Offensive military action without congressional approval is not constitutional absent extraordinary circumstances,” Mr Kaine said in a statement.
He was similarly critical of Mr Trump’s decision to launch airstrikes in Syria, again without consulting Congress, in 2018.
Donald Jr pivoted from the Syria news to hit out at Congresswoman Liz Cheney, who has become a hated figure among Mr Trump’s supporters after voting in favour of his second impeachment last month.
In the wake of that vote, Ms Cheney faced an unsuccessful effort to remove her from her role as head of the Republican Party’s House conference. That did not deter her from criticising the former president.
“I don’t believe that (Mr Trump) should be playing a role in the future of the party or the country,” Ms Cheney said earlier this week.
“I’m sure she has a lot of bipartisan support, because if there’s one thing that she and Joe Biden definitely want to do, it’s bomb the Middle East,” Donald Jr said.
“Liz Cheney and her politics are only slightly less popular than her father is at a quail hunt.”
Ms Cheney’s father, former vice president Dick Cheney, accidentally shot another man in the face while hunting in 2006.
“She is tied to an establishment that has done nothing but fail us time and time again,” Donald Jr continued.
“If there’s one thing the Republican Party has been really good at over the last few decades, it’s snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.”
His next target was toy company Hasbro, which announced it was dropping the “Mr” from its “Mr Potato Head” brand this week in the name of inclusion.
“Hasbro now wants a gender neutral Mr Potato Head!” Donald Jr said.
“These are the issues of our times, folks. I mean, if Hasbro really wanted a gender neutral Mr Potato Head so badly, they should just slap a picture of CNN’s Brian Sletler on the cover of their next potato.”
The audience laughed appreciativey.
“What? They don’t call him Mr Potato Head for nothing. You know, we might as well get something out of the branding,” he added.
He was actually referring to Brian Stelter, CNN’s chief media correspondent, who is bald. Stelter responded by retweeting the first comment here.
Donald Jr finished up by saying he was “looking forward” to his father’s speech on Sunday.
“I imagine it will not be what we call a low energy speech, and I assure you it will solidify Donald Trump and all of your feelings about the MAGA movement as the future of the Republican Party,” he said.
Donald Jr’s girlfiend, former prosecutor and TV personality Kimberly Guilfoyle, spoke just before him, adopting a similar tone and volume to her infamous speech at the Republican National Convention last year.
Ms Guilfoyle said the Republican Party was being “reborn thanks to President Trump”.
“It is being reborn as a party of the working class of minorities, of hard working American men and women, the party of America first, the party of President Trump,” she said.
“I will confidently say that President Trump, from his desk in Mar-a-Lago, will accomplish more for America in the next four years than Joe Biden and Kamala Harris could ever dream of.”
She, too, took aim at the Republican politicians who have criticised Mr Trump since the Capitol riot on January 6.
“We bid a farewell to the weak-kneed, the spineless and the cowards that are posing in D.C., pretending that they’re working for the people,” said Ms Guilfoyle.
The conference got off to a fiery start earlier today, with multiple speakers denouncing coronavirus restrictions across the country.
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, for example, called his state an “oasis of freedom”.
“We look around in other parts of the country, and in too many places we see schools closed, businesses shuttered and lives destroyed,” he said.
Florida has recorded the third-highest number of coronavirus infections in the US, with 1.9 million, and its death toll of 30,500 is the fourth-highest in the country.
However, Mr DeSantis’ approach, with an emphasis on keeping the economy open as much as possible, has been widely praised in Republican circles.
Utah Senator Mike Lee was another early speaker. He slammed the Democratic state government in California for trying to limit church attendance amid the pandemic.
Mr Lee argued it was no coincidence that freedom of assembly had been “severely restricted” during the “growth of government that’s occurred during this pandemic”.
“We’ve been prevented from gathering in our churches, in our schools and in our workplaces, in some cases even from gathering in protest while seeking redress of grievances,” he said, casting coronavirus restrictions as a threat to Americans’ freedoms more broadly.
“Those in power have struck at the core piece that has the ability to cause the whole structure to collapse. And we’re suffering the consequences.”
Josh Mandel, a Senate candidate in Ohio, continued this theme. He labelled Ohio Governor Mike DeWine, a Republican, an “authoritarian”.
“(The) deep state, if you will, is not just led by radical liberal governors like (California’s) Gavin Newsom and (New York’s) Andrew Cuomo, but even squishy Republican governors like our Governor Mike DeWine in Ohio,” said Mr Mandel.
He said “bureaucrats” had used the pandemic as an excuse to “trample on the liberty of families and small businesses”.
Mr Mandel ended his time by picking up a chant of “freedom” from the crowd.
That was followed by an awkward moment for CPAC’s organisers.
The conference’s Director, Carly Conley, appeared on stage with Dan Schneider, Executive Director of the American Conservative Union, to remind attendees they should be wearing face masks.
CPAC is in Florida this year because of Mr DeSantis’ relatively relaxed coronavirus restrictions, which allow large indoor gatherings to take place.
Some precautions are in place, such as temperature checks at the entrances. The Hyatt Regency Hotel, which is hosting the event, has asked attendees to wear masks and practise social distancing.
“I know this might sound like a little bit of a downer. But we also believe in property rights, and this is a private hotel,” Mr Schneider told the audience.
“We believe in the rule of law, so we have to comply with the laws of this county we’re in. But a private hotel, just like your house, gets to set its own rules.”
He then yielded to Ms Conley.
“Well, as Stan mentioned, we are in a private facility, and we do want to be respectful of the ordinances that they have as their private property, so please, everyone, when you’re in the ballroom, when you’re seated, you should still be wearing a mask,” she said.
“So if everybody can go ahead, work on that. I know, I know, it’s not the most fun.”
There were boos from the crowd, and a few audience members shouted the word “freedom” at the stage.
“You have the right to set the rules in your own house. And we’re borrowing somebody else’s house, so we need to comply with their rules,” Mr Schneider said.
“So thank you all for putting on your masks. I wear a mask when I’m in the halls, and we’re going to comply with their rules.”
Members of the crowd continued to heckle the pair.
“Thank you everyone, and have a good conference,” Ms Conley added.
Both officials framed the request to wear masks as a matter of respecting the Hyatt Regency’s private property rights, rather than a public health issue.
Republican Senator Ted Cruz was another prominent speaker today.
Mr Cruz found himself in the news for the wrong reasons last week when he flew to Cancun with his family while his constituents back home in Texas were struggling through a massive winter storm, which left hundreds of thousands without power or running water for days.
Mr Cruz promptly flew back to Houston after photos of him at the airport and on his flight emerged online. He said he’d travelled to the resort city because he was trying to be a good father.
Today, the Senator started his remarks with a joke poking fun at the controversy.
“Orlando is awesome. It’s not as nice as Cancun. But it’s nice,” he quipped.
Observers on social media made their own amusing references to the Cancun trip while Mr Cruz spoke.
Incidentally, the other US Senator for Texas, Republican John Cornyn, was in his home state today to meet Mr Biden, who visited to survey the damage from the storm and speak to first responders.
Mr Cruz, however, was in Orlando to attend CPAC. He used his speech to confirm Mr Trump’s continuing role as the de facto leader of the Republican Party, saying the political left remains “terrified” of him despite his defeat to Mr Biden last year, which made him the first one-term president since the 1990s.
“They look at Donald J. Trump, and they look at the millions and millions of people inspired, who went to battle, fighting alongside President Trump, and they’re terrified,” Mr Cruz said.
“And they want him to go away. Let me tell you this right now, Donald J. Trump ain’t going anywhere.”