By JILL COLVIN Associated Press
Former President Donald Trump returned to Washington for the first time since leaving office Tuesday, vigorously repeating his false election claims that sparked the Jan. 6 insurrection at the nearby Capitol.
“It was a catastrophe that election. A disgrace to our country,” he said, insisting despite all evidence that he had won in 2020. “We may just have to do it again,” he said, repeating as he does in all recent appearances the ever-clearer hints that he will run again in 2024.
He recent frequent applause and cheers from his audience, a meeting organized by a group of former White House officials and Cabinet members who have been crafting an agenda for a possible second Trump term.
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 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.
Trump spoke hours after former Vice President Mike Pence, a potential 2024 rival, outlined his own “Freedom Agenda ” in a speech nearby.
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 conservatives to stop looking backward and focus on 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 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 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 reunion — 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 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.
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.”
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.
AP writer Lisa Mascaro contributed to this report.