The American Conservative Union (ACU) on Monday evening released its agenda for the 2018 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), a lineup that amounts to perhaps the premiere conservative movement event’s strongest ever, as President Donald Trump’s takeover of the Republican Party and the movement enters its next phases.
ACU chairman Matt Schlapp, executive director Dan Schneider, and communications director Ian Walters sat down with Breitbart News exclusively on Monday night to discuss the event which features robust discussions of major issues facing the movement, the GOP, the country, and the world today.
“We feel vindicated,” Schlapp told Breitbart News. “After all of the internal family squabbling in the conservative movement and Republican Party and country generally [over the past several years], we feel vindicated that CPAC has been a moment where we in a very public way can talk about our disagreements and it has resulted over the last three CPACs in us having more political success and policy success as a movement than we have ever had. That means this is a critical four days and that we have set up the debate and the discussions once again where we can do this in a way that will make us stronger, not weaker.”
The event, which begins Wednesday evening and continues through Saturday afternoon, is held at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center in National Harbor, Maryland–just outside Washington, D.C.
Schlapp said the major theme of the conference this year is to “speak to the moment” of what is happening on the political landscape.
“The moment for this year is some people believe that Trump was not the right guy to be our standard bearer in 2016,” Schlapp said. “The conservative movement and Republican Party had an internal food fight over that, and Donald Trump emerged with everyone else with food all over them but he was pretty clean. But, now, people would ask me a year and a half ago: Will he govern as a conservative? And I would always give the answer: Let’s see what he does, let’s see what he does. Well, we’ve had a year now to see what he has done—and, if you look at all the areas of the conservative movement, if you look at the three legs of the stool whether it’s culture and the family, strong national security, or the economy, it’s hard to find anybody who is anything other than enthusiastic about the decisions that are coming from the president. So, I would say the political moment is we’ve had a year to see how President Trump governs, and conservatives are overwhelmingly enthusiastic about how he has come to the decisions he has come to—and after a year, we need to come together and celebrate the fact that we’ve had more policy successes than we’ve had in a decade. We’re just getting started.”
This year’s CPAC agenda, released Monday evening, focuses on the core issues facing the conservative movement a year into Trump’s presidency, while Republicans look down the barrel of an all-important midterm election as economic nationalist conservatives worldwide battle leftist forces in countries ranging from the United Kingdom to France and elsewhere around the world.
The agenda stands out against a backdrop of an economic nationalist takeover of the Republican Party, as the GOP becomes President Trump’s party once and for all in the second year of his first term, and as CPAC continues to reinvigorate itself as the flagship conservative movement event of the year.
The release of the agenda comes on the heels of previously rough years for the American Conservative Union and CPAC, where the group’s conservative movement banner event was forced into an identity crisis akin to the one the conservative movement and GOP as a whole have experienced with the rise of Trump and the fall of establishment politicians who subscribe to the thinking espoused by the old ways of globalism. Rival conferences fueled by movement exclusion and division have given way to a more open discussion of differences inside the conservative movement at CPAC.
Some of the events on the CPAC agenda are more controversial-sounding. Panels at this year’s CPAC include ones focused on how the establishment media and far left-wing political activists collude; whether China, Russia, or rogue states are the biggest threats to America; a panel on how college campuses are infected with leftism; “Trumponomics”; immigration, trade, Israel, the out-of-control Obama-era Justice Department scandals, and whether conservatives are serious about defunding Planned Parenthood.
Some of the titles are eye-catching: “Kim Jong University: How College Campuses are Turning into Reeducation Camps.” And: “Are Conservatives Serious About Defunding Planned Parenthood?” Or: “China’s Existential Challenge to America—and the World.” Also: “Economic Theft and Market Manipulation.” In addition: “Trump’s America First Energy Plan: Restoring our Prosperity and Destroying Eco-Left Memes.”
“You and I go back,” Ian Walters, the communications director of the ACU, told Breitbart News when asked about some of the more provocatively-titled panels. “We’ve seen different iterations of this conference over the past few years. When Schlapp and Schneider took over, their approach was that if there were differences within the movement—if there were controversial topics—that we weren’t going to sweep them under the rug. We were going to use CPAC as a forum for everybody to speak their minds and try to figure out what the right path forward is. With the Planned Parenthood one, you may think it’s a cute title—and it is provocative—but it also can be taken completely literally. Due to folks in the swamp who are the leaders, are they interested in the outcomes that they say they are interested in? Or are they interested in preserving their own positions? That’s the question that we wanted to ask publicly in a difficult, polite way that hopefully makes the folks sitting inside that room think differently about that issue.”
Other panels sound more establishment-friendly or like panels one would see at a traditional CPAC, for instance: “You May Say You’re a DREAMer But You’re Not the Only One.” Or: “Dignity for Incarcerated Women: Is it Really Necessary to Shackle Women in labor?” And: “Do Not Pass Go! How Government is Killing Capitalism.”
But the CPAC organizers insist that conference-goers should look past the titles and go hear out the events.
“The title reflects some of what the president talked about,” Schneider said about the DREAMer panel. “It’s Americans who should be establishing American policy on immigration. There are lots of Americans who agree with you that the future of Americans should not be sacrificed if it’s simply looking to help non-Americans get benefits. But the purpose of this breakout panel is to address current law which is pretty good, but not enforced. So, how can current law be enforced to get the right result? And then, what changes are necessary so that American policy that helps Americans is put at the forefront?”
Generally speaking, there is a bigger theme that has emerged for this year’s CPAC as it relates to previous CPACs: The ACU wants to be the referees of what works in the conservative movement, and what doesn’t work. And the ACU wants CPAC to be the ring in which that battle is fought.
“The group putting this on is obviously the American Conservative Union,” Schlapp told Breitbart News. “There’s a reason, in that title, to learn from the Reagan example that when conservatives—even conservatives who have political differences—work together politically, we have political victory. When we decide to follow something to a fault line, we’re not successful. There’s lots of differences in that room, on the stage, but the theme out of this is going to be—last year’s theme was ‘A Time for Action’—so the theme out of this is: ‘What are we able to work on collectively to get done?’ So, there’s actually a united purpose and that is the Trump agenda.”
Later in the interview, Schlapp added that over the past several decades of CPAC’s and ACU’s existence—the conference has been going on since the early 1970s—conservatives have used what they have learned at these conferences to take their battles into real-world political and policy applications that have had enormous national and international implications. The latest and most sophisticated iteration of that is President Trump, who has taken the movement to a whole new level, Schlapp says–even more significant so far than Ronald Reagan was in the 1980s.
“Why Trump is unique is that Reagan showed that we could win nationwide for the presidency. Congress was always considered at that time to be something that was unattainable for the Republican Party,” Schlapp said. “Yes, we got the Senate under Reagan but we never got the House and that was deemed something that just would never happen. Reagan showed us we could win the White House with a conservative. Newt Gingrich and Tom DeLay and the others showed us that we could actually win the House with conservatives in the 1990s, which allowed us for the first time to actually control the purse strings which was a big step. We had a few years under George W. Bush where we had a congressional majority and the presidency, but the change about Donald Trump is that he captured the nation with a fresh approach. In taking that approach, he started his presidency with a large majority in the House and a more slender majority in the Senate. He started his presidency with a Republican majority in the Senate and in the House. Those congressional majorities were worried about what a President Trump would do. We’ve seen over the course of the last year that although that relationship is fitful at times, it has produced more policy change than we have really ever seen on the Republican side. Then you understand why our thesis is ‘A Time for Action.’ We’re not longer just sitting back talking about ‘what if this happens?’ It is happening, and everybody needs to wake up and realize there is a window where we can get more successes. That window one day will close, that’s not a prediction, but we have this historic opportunity in front of us.”
In addition to all those panels, a number of high-profile and sometimes controversial international movement leaders were rolled out as speakers on this year’s CPAC agenda. First and foremost, from France the National Front’s Marion Le Pen will address CPAC for the first time. An economic nationalist leader on the rise in her country, Le Pen will discuss the battles she is fighting as she and her party work to stave off globalists like Emmanuel Macron—the new French president. The United Kingdom’s “Mr. Brexit,” Nigel Farage, will speak from the main stage at CPAC as well.
The worldwide focus, Schneider said, comes amid new efforts this past year by the ACU to build conservative strongholds around the world—including in Japan, where Schneider said he and Schlapp helped establish the Japanese Conservative Union in 2017.
“Matt Schlapp and I have been working with a number of partners around the world to help define conservatism that makes sense in other parts of the world, and grow conservatism,” Schneider said. “We helped establish the Japanese Conservative Union. Matt will be making an announcement from the main stage of CPAC on our efforts to expand our reach. Conservatism, as a political bloc of conservatism, affects not only the American system. It affects other nations’ sovereignty, which is important.”
All of that comes with an intense focus in this year’s CPAC on China, with panels aimed at exposing currency manipulation, how China may be America’s biggest threat, China’s “existential challenge” to the world and the United States, and a special live broadcast of John Batchelor’s nationally-syndicated radio program from the main stage titled: “Storm Clouds Over China.” That Batchelor broadcast will feature people like Dr. Sebastian Gorka–a former Breitbart News National Security Editor who served in President Trump’s White House last year for several months as a national security official–and the Daily Beast’s Gordon Chang, as well as other China experts.
CPAC will have a number of events focused on the Russia investigation, and particularly a panel that will highlight the intelligence-gathering abuses by the Barack Obama White House and Justice Department as laid out in the recently-released House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence (HPSCI) memo and FBI text messages from Peter Strzok and Lisa Page. HPSCI chairman Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA) will also address the conference.
“I love the idea of marrying up this concept of what the Constitution allows and doesn’t allow government to do and the real-life drama that’s playing out in front of us in the media about the Obama abuses when it came to surveilling Team Trump,” Schlapp told Breitbart News. “It is the most unfortunate real-life political example of constitutional abuse. It is perhaps the most nefarious example of using political power to harm your political opponents that we’ve ever seen. As I’ve said in the past, I actually think Richard Nixon is owed an apology. We all accept this idea that Richard Nixon, Tricky Dick, had done something that really had never been done in our history. But the Obama team has shown, and Bill Clinton showed it before Obama, that it is actually the Democrats who aggressively use their political power to harm their political opponents. Now, I don’t condone anything Richard Nixon did, but I think to get FISA warrants in the way that they got them using the intelligence apparatus to go after your political opponents is something we have to understand and get a hold of because this should never happen. Somebody needs to go to jail over this, and it’s not the people that the New York Times says are in legal trouble. It is the people in the Obama administration that used this sacred power, the ability to look into someone’s personal life and listen to their personal phone calls, in a way that was used to maybe even have an impact on the presidential campaign. It’s un-American. It should have never happened. And our supporters need to know about it.”
CPAC will also have a number of events focused on trade policy and Trump’s brand of economics. “Making America Trade Again,” a curated speech by Bill Walton of Rappahannock Ventures, as well as another curated speech by Stephen Moore of the Heritage Foundation on “Economic Theft and Market Manipulation” will address trade policy. Trump’s style of handling the economy will come up in a panel titled: “Trumponomics V. Obamanomics.”
When asked about how to deal with perceived discrepancies between Trump’s trade views and those of some in the conservative movement, Schneider and Schlapp argued that Trump’s worldview is correct.
“Conservatives have long stood for free trade,” Schneider said. “What we’ve seen for a long time are deals that are not necessarily free trade, but are placating some of our trading partners to keep them as friends. There are some on the right who think that when foreign governments subsidize their own companies that that’s okay even when it harms American companies. Well, conservatives have long understood that that is anti-competitive, that produces bad results in the long run, and we should stand for true free trade instead. So, what President Trump has done is hit the reset button and allow conservatives to have a greater voice in trade policy.”
Schlapp added more, including an unsolicited shot at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce–part of the establishment wing of the GOP opposite President Trump’s views on trade and the economy–another sign the movement and party are moving in Trump’s direction:
“The one thing that we have noticed with a lot of people who have joined the ACU and are supporting us, people with real business experience, is it’s not a question of whether you’re free market or protectionist. I think that most savvy market participants and those in Washington realize that those are false choices. People who tell us, who title things as ‘free trade,’ are actually ascribing too nice a term to big trade deals that are nothing more than complicated business contracts. What I notice from most people who are free market who are associated with us and involved in politics, is that they actually think Donald Trump is right to say that it’s not free trade if it’s not reciprocal. It’s not free to have a TPP agreement that at the end of the window, Japan’s market is only 10 percent open to products outside Japan. That’s not reciprocal and that’s not free. So, what America has done is it has opened up its market but it has not been able to effectively open up other markets where our entrepreneurs are competing. What these free market business people are saying is it is time for us to get a lot smarter. I think Donald Trump completely understands that, frankly, a lot better than the Chamber of Commerce.”
In addition, on immigration, Sheriff David Clarke will give a curated speech titled: “Law and Border.” Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge will give a curated speech titled: “A Tale of (Two) Sanctuary Cities.”
“The first role of the federal government is to protect our borders, and help keep Americans safe in their life, their liberty, and their property,” Schneider said about the focus on immigration. “In the Obama administration, that idea of the government first existing to protect our borders was sacrificed. I believe President Trump has reversed that.”
This year’s CPAC also has an outsized focus on conservative media, and deliberately not on establishment media—featuring a panel to bash media bias. Conservative media luminaries like Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham of Fox News, Eric Bolling, Greta Van Susteren, Breitbart’s own London editor-in-chief Raheem Kassam, the Washington Times’ Ralph Hallow, Project Veritas’ James O’Keefe, nationally-syndicated columnist Michelle Malkin, and many others are featured. The ACU team says that is because times are changing.
“The first panel we come out of the gates with on Thursday morning is the media panel,” Walters told Breitbart News. “At this event, like Matt said, what really is happening is we’re speaking to the moment. There has been a lot of change in the last 12 months with regard to the media landscape. It was not uncommon in the past decade for us to think about inviting folks from other non-conservative news outlets. Schlapp and I will joke about it, he’s not a contributor at any of the networks and that allows him to go on all of the stations and MSNBC and CNN included, and over the last 12 months they’re not that interested in having him on that often. So why would that be? They’re speaking to their audiences. CNN has its audience. MSNBC has its audience they’re going after. They’re not real interested in hearing from us. The folks that we read, that we consume, that we share information with are often right of center. That’s how it’s worked out.”
That’s not to mention the fact that President Trump, Vice President Mike Pence, and a record number of cabinet and administration officials will address the conference as well. Secretaries of Energy Rick Perry, Interior Ryan Zinke, Education Betsy DeVos, and Labor Alex Acosta will give speeches, and the Small Business Administration’s Linda McMahon, FCC chairman Ajit Pai, White House counsel Don McGahn, and White House adviser KellyAnne Conway will also appear.
“This is the first time in history that we’ve two years in a row have a president and vice president come two years in a row to CPAC,” Schneider said. “It’s also the first time we’ve had such a large percentage of the Cabinet come to CPAC. The prior record was in Reagan’s second term where about a third of the Cabinet spoke. This time, about half of the Cabinet will be at CPAC.”
Other conservative leaders like Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), former United Nations ambassador John Bolton, Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin, House Freedom Caucus chairman Rep. Mark Meadows (R-NC) and his predecessor Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH), Republican Study Committee chairman Rep. Mark Walker (R-NC), Republican National Committee chairwoman Ronna McDaniel, former Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R-KS), President Trump’s son Eric Trump, Charlie Kirk of Turning Point USA, Frank Gaffney of the Center for Security Policy, Dr. Zuhdi Jasser, Tea Party Patriots’ Jenny Beth Martin, and many more will speak.
There will also be a remote location in Denver that is interconnected with what is happening at CPAC in D.C.
“One very innovative thing we are doing at this CPAC is we are having a second stage in Denver, Colorado,” Schneider said. “So, Michelle Malkin will be speaking from the Denver stage and we will be having a debate from the Denver stage that will be broadcast to our CPAC audience here in the D.C. area. Simultaneously, the folks in Denver will be watching the CPAC stage here live.”
Walters, ACU’s communications director, says that the defining message overall though is Trump has demonstrated that he is a capable president and leader, more so than recent Republican establishment leaders—and it is up to economic nationalist movement conservatives to continue to drive this forward.
“These are things that conservatives have been talking about doing our entire lives,” Walters said. “Finally, there is a guy who is not just talk. He is actually going about doing these things. The evidence is seen in a booming economy. He has unshackled it, he’s unleashed it—just like he said he would. Do you think a President Mitt Romney or a President John McCain would have been able to get these things done even if they said it on the campaign trail? These candidates all say one thing on the campaign trail, and then you put them in office and they lose their spine. We got a very different guy who’s very willing to keep his promises. We’re all benefiting from it. This is the moment we’ve all been waiting for for the last 25 years.”