America first, irony last. Donald Trump, the former US president accused of a coup attempt in which police were speared and sprayed, returned to Washington on Tuesday with a plea for law and order to give police “the respect that they deserve”.
Trump spoke at a luxury hotel less than two miles from the US Capitol where, 18 months ago, his supporters furiously attacked law enforcement in a bid to overturn the 2020 presidential election result. It was his first visit to the nation’s capital since he snubbed Joe Biden’s inauguration and took flight to Florida.
There were chants of “four more years!” as Trump gave a 90-minute address to a summit hosted by the America First Policy Institute (AFPI), a rightwing thinktank conceived by alumni of his White House. Less than a week after the congressional January 6 committee detailed 187 minutes in which he chose not to stop the deadly insurrection, Trump sought to blame Democrats for what he described as rampant crime.
“There is no higher priority than cleaning up our streets, controlling our border, stopping the drugs from pouring in, and quickly restoring law and order in America,” he said to applause.
Trump complained: “There is no longer respect for the law and there certainly is no order. Our country is now a cesspool of crime. We have blood, death and suffering on a scale once unthinkable because of the Democrat party’s effort to destroy and dismantle law enforcement all throughout America. It has to stop and it has to stop now.”
Wearing his signature dark suit, white shirt and red tie, Trump went on to cite individual murder cases in lurid detail and argue that police have been unfairly maligned.
“Every time they do something, they’re afraid they’re going to be destroyed, their pension is going to be taken away, they’ll be fined, they’ll be put in jail. Let them do their job, give them back the respect that they deserve.
He added: “The radical left’s anti-police narrative is a total lie. Let’s call it ‘the big lie’. Have you ever heard that expression before?”
More than 140 Capitol police and DC Metropolitan police officers were injured while defending the US Capitol, according to official figures. Officer Caroline Edwards told the January 6 committee: “I was slipping in people’s blood. I was catching people as they fell. It was carnage, it was chaos.” In the days and weeks after the attack, five officers who had served at the Capitol on January 6 died.
Biden said on Monday: “You can’t be pro-insurrection and pro-cop, You can’t be pro-insurrection and pro-democracy. You can’t be pro-insurrection and pro-American.”
Trump, a New Yorker born and bred now resident in Florida, was never entirely at ease in Washington during his four-year presidency, which some compared to an army of occupation in a Democratic stronghold: Biden beat the Republican by 92% to 5% in the District of Columbia.
Trump was rarely seen about town and only ever dined out at the steakhouse in his Pennsylvania Avenue hotel, once the centre of the Trumpiverse but subsequently sold. The gold lettering that spelled out his name has been unceremoniously expunged, replaced by signage for the new owner, the Waldorf Astoria.
But the AFPI’s two-day summit at the Marriott Marquis Washington hotel created an alternative-reality bubble where face masks and mentions of January 6 were vanishingly scarce and where Trump alumni were feted as celebrities, heroes and martyrs.
Mark Meadows, a former White House chief of staff whose reputation has been shredded by the January 6 panel, projected insouciance as he chatted, chortled and posed for photos with supporters while declining interview requests. Shortly before Trump’s keynote address, a man asked the ex-White House counsel Kellyanne Conway: “Can I have a selfie?”
As it happened, Trump’s estranged vice-president, Mike Pence, was also in town – but not at this venue, where he might have been heckled. In a case of duelling Washington speeches, Pence addressed the Young America’s Foundation’s National Conservative Student Conference.
A potential rival to Trump in 2024, he said: “I don’t know that our movement is that divided. I don’t know that the president and I differ on issues, but 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, so many families are struggling – that we don’t give way to the temptation to look back.”
Last week the January 6 committee heard how Pence’s Secret Service detail called family members from the US Capitol, fearing that they would never make it home. On Tuesday, Pence announced that his memoir, So Help Me God, will be published on 15 November by Simon & Schuster.
Trump’s event, meanwhile, bore hallmarks of his campaign rallies, including music from Elton John and Frank Sinatra booming from loudspeakers, warm-up acts lavishing praise on him and a rambling speech of more than an hour that tossed out bigotry, red meat and personal insults.
Familiar targets included the “fake news media”, “crazy” Nancy Pelosi, border security, the Russia investigation and the January 6 hearings. He advocated “quick trials” and the death penalty for drug traffickers and argued that presidents should be able to summon the national guard to restore order “without having to wait for the approval of some governor that thinks it’s politically incorrect to call them in”.
Trump also got one of the biggest cheers of the day when he attacked transgender rights, declaring: “We should not allow men to play in women’s sports”.
He returned to his false claims of election fraud in 2020, saying: “I ran the first time and I won. Then I ran a second time and I did much better.” The crowd cheered and whistled approvingly. “We got millions and millions more votes … We may just have to do it again.” More cheers.
Attendees at the conference expressed joy at seeing Trump’s return and hope that he would run for president again – irrespective of what happened on January 6.
Day Gardner, president of the National Black Pro-Life Union, said: “I’m really hoping for 2024. Promises made, promises kept: very important to me. I’m strongly pro-life. I want the wall finished and it’s not that we hate anybody. We’re saying come legally.”
Gardner, 67, from Bowie, Maryland, dismissed the insurrection as overblown. “Most people that went there said it’s the people’s house, we want to make a statement … People who did anything wrong probably got sidetracked and kind of lost their way.”
Matthew O’Brien, 53, director of investigations for the Immigration Reform Law Institute, said: “The Trump administration was the first administration since Eisenhower to take immigration seriously. The fact is, without a border, you don’t have a country.”
He added: “The January 6 hearings – I’m not sure what their purpose is. It’s not clear to me what Congress is looking for in that particular situation. They seem to have been all over the map as far as the questions they’re asked and what they’re actually doing.”
Asked if the hearings had shaken his faith in Trump, Christopher Payne, 70, an accountant, replied: “No, because I have listened to him many times in the past, including going to his rallies and, for all intents, I know the real president and yes, OK, like all of us, sometimes you slip up. But the fact is he’s not dwelling on past mistakes; he’s looking at what he can do in the future.”
But Democrats mocked Trump’s return to Washington and noted the irony of his law-and-order message. Cedric Richmond, a senior adviser to the Democratic National Committee, said: “If Donald Trump wants to talk about crime, he should explain why he incited a mob to violently attack police officers defending the Capitol, or why he proposed massive cuts to community policing programs, or why his Maga Republican allies voted against funding that has bolstered law enforcement.”