If anything could have sweetened Donald Trump’s triumphant return on Friday to centre stage at the Conservative Political Action Conference, it might have been the sour reception he received there in the past.
Two years ago, he was booed at the mention of bringing U.S. “boots on the ground” to Syria. At CPAC 2016, he opted to bail on the annual gathering altogether. So thin were his chances, conservatives believed then, that a presidential straw poll put him in third place, behind senators Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio.
Watch: Trump gets booed at CPAC in 2015:
How things have changed.
On Friday, the new commander-in-chief commanded standing ovations.
In his CPAC address, Trump returned to familiar themes, doubling down on attacking the “fake news media” as the “enemy of the people” — a remark followed hours later by the White House blocking CNN, the New York Times and other media outlets from a press briefing.
But the president played coy on Friday about his no-show in 2016.
“I would have come last year, but I was worried that I would be too controversial,” he teased an adoring CPAC audience.
“Now, you finally have a president. Finally. Took you a long time.”
It was only a year ago January that the influential conservative publication the National Review published its collected “Conservatives Against Trump” essays.
At CPAC in 2016, he was brushed off as the “pro-choice, Democrat-donating” candidate who was far from becoming the next darling of the conservative movement, says veteran Republican political consultant Jarryd Gonzales.
This year, elated attendees cheered on Trump’s big-spending promises — for infrastructure, the military and a pledge to build a border wall with Mexico to the tune of a projected $20 billion — the kinds of promises that might ordinarily clash with conservative orthodoxy.