‘Anti-CPAC’ summit draws conservatives together with common goal: Stopping Trump

Hundreds of conservatives gathered in Washington, D.C. over the weekend, but not for the Trumpalooza clown-car event known as the Conservative Political Action Conference, or CPAC. Instead, at the Principles First Summit the message was clear: Donald Trump poses a threat to our democracy, and if he is the Republican nominee many of them will vote for President Joe Biden despite disagreeing with him on many issues.

Speakers at the event made clear that they intend to take their anti-Trump message to the Republican primary voters who have chosen a candidate other than Trump, in particular those supporting former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley. Republican political consultant Mike Madrid, a co-founder of the Lincoln Project, noted in a post on X, formerly known as Twitter, that it’s worth targeting these voters, writing “GOP defections will be the single largest factor in the November outcome.”

Now this all may be a pipe dream, but these voters may be more receptive to anti-Trump messaging coming from conservatives rather than from liberals. And if even a small percentage of GOP voters flip to Biden in key swing states, it could make a difference in a close election. Principles First may just help with that. 

RELATED STORY: Trump’s weekend at CPAC was a tour de force of bigotry and incompetence

Principles First was founded in 2019 as a right and center-right movement that says it’s “concerned about the health of democracy.” It was meant to serve as an alternative to CPAC, which has become increasingly dominated by Trump’s MAGA cult.

Last weekend’s fourth Principles First conference drew about 700 participants—more than double the number who attended last year’s event, its founder Heath Mayo said. Meanwhile, at the larger CPAC event, the crowds were sparser than in previous years.

And the MAGA cult message was loud and clear at CPAC where the lobby display included a “J6 Insurrection” pinball machine. Right-wing conspiracy theorist Jack Posobiec told a panel hosted by Steve Bannon:

“Welcome to the end of democracy, We’re here to overthrow it completely. We didn’t get all the way there on Jan. 6, but we will endeavor to get rid of it and replace it with this right here,” Posobiec said.

Posobiec then held up his fist, and added: "All glory is not to government. All glory to God." 

In his opening address to the Principles First Summit, Mayo, who had already told NPR that he would vote for Biden over Trump, had a distinctly different message about the need to put “principles first rather than party or personalities.” 

”We don’t have golden statues of politicians rolling around. Our speakers will celebrate the spirit of 1776 instead of Jan. 6. And the people in this room today, we know how to spot and condemn tyranny when we see it rather than to praise it.”

.@HeathMayo welcomes the crowd to the 2024 Principles First Summit: “Here we have our 15 principles out in the hallway. We don't have golden statues of politicians rolling around. Our speakers will celebrate the spirit of 1776 instead of January 6.” pic.twitter.com/eyIR4AAA0n

— Principles First (@Principles_1st) February 24, 2024

And the star of the event was Cassidy Hutchinson, the former White House staffer who provided pivotal testimony to the House Select Committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol. Participants lined up in the lobby to receive signed copies of her book “Enough.”

In a touching moment, Hutchinson was presented the Principles First Profiles in Courage award from last year’s recipient, former Capitol Police officer Harry Dunn who held back the mob on Jan. 6 and is now running for Congress as a Democrat. 

Cassidy Hutchinson receives this year's Profiles in Courage award.#PrinciplesFirst pic.twitter.com/3vMFR2kuVV

— Principles First (@Principles_1st) February 24, 2024

Hutchinson, also took part in a panel with two other anti-Trump former White House staffers, Sarah Matthews and Alyssa Farah Griffin (now co-host of “The View”). She described the “horrible attacks” that ruined her life and those of others who testified to the select committee such as Georgia election workers Shaye Moss and Ruby Freeman.

“We need to push towards normalcy,” Hutchinson said. “We start in this next election. We start by doing everything we possibly can to make sure that Donald Trump never gets near the Oval Office again, and to make sure that every member of Congress that has enabled Donald Trump’s agenda is also held accountable and voted out of office.”

She emphasized the need to mobilize and educate voters, especially in the handful of swing states, about the choice in the upcoming election. “If the ticket is a binary choice between Donald Trump and Joe Biden, people need to understand on a very basic, very fundamental level that there’ll be one candidate on that ballot that will support our democracy so we can continue to thrive. And it’s not Donald Trump.”

Cassidy Hutchinson: “If the ticket is a binary choice between Donald Trump and Joe Biden, people need to understand at a very basic and very fundamental level, that there is one candidate on that ballot that will support our democracy…and that’s not Donald Trump.” pic.twitter.com/SQjty4BGqk

— Principles First (@Principles_1st) February 24, 2024

And that message was underscored by former Rep. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois, one of the two Republicans who served on the House Jan. 6 select committee. Kinzinger encouraged Nikki Haley to remain in the race, but then added: “If it’s Trump against Biden, I’m going to vote for Biden because to me, and this is what I think is important, I can disagree with a lot of stuff but democracy is truly at stake here. “ 

.@AdamKinzinger: "If it's Trump against Biden, I'm going to vote for Biden...I can disagree with a lot of stuff but democracy is truly at stake here." pic.twitter.com/ZDtdO3rJr7

— Principles First (@Principles_1st) February 25, 2024

Sarah Longwell, a founder of Republican Voters Against Trump, totally dismissed any notion of supporting a third-party No Labels ticket, saying it would absolutely help elect Trump.

Ukraine and its fight against Russia was also discussed by several speakers, who declared their unwavering support. Former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, whose short-lived presidential campaign gained no traction, warned that Trump is going to make the GOP “a pro-Putin party.” He added: “I’m sorry. That’s not what Ronald Reagan would do.”

Fiona Hill, the former National Security Council senior director for European and Russian affairs who testified in the first House Trump impeachment inquiry, said: “We are really seeing Putin eroding the idea of the United States as well. … For Putin, this is a pivotal turning point. If the enterprise in Ukraine fails … if the United States is seen to not be stepping up then we’ve really basically lost our leadership position.”

Fiona Hill: “We are really seeing Putin eroding the idea of the United States as well…For Putin, this is a pivotal turning point. If the enterprise in Ukraine fails…if the United States is seen to not be stepping up than we’ve really basically lost our leadership position.” pic.twitter.com/HcKc7P7A7x

— Principles First (@Principles_1st) February 24, 2024

Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensberger, who faced pressure from Trump and threats from MAGA supporters after certifying Biden’s victory in 2020, said he would follow the law and the Constitution and make sure his state has “fair, honest and accurate elections” in 2024.

Former federal appeals court Judge J. Michael Luttig said Donald Trump must be held accountable for his actions relating to the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.

.@judgeluttig: “If all of the individuals who attacked the United States Capitol on Jan. 6 are prosecuted and imprisoned, that will all be for naught if Donald Trump is not held accountable.” pic.twitter.com/hvxXjcsmBs

— Principles First (@Principles_1st) February 25, 2024

And there was one other reason why speakers at the conference emphasized that Trump must lose the 2024 election: only a big loss could enable a sane center-right party to emerge out of the MAGA ashes. Conservative commentator Charlie Sykes said the country “needs two rational political parties.” And Jonah Goldberg, founder of the online conservative website The Dispatch, said that it’s necessary to build on the minority faction within the GOP that is “sane” and voting against Trump to reclaim the party.

Good luck with that. But there was one hopeful sign in the lobby of the Principles First Summit—and something that you wouldn’t find at CPAC.

Just hanging with @JimSwiftDC & Tay Tay at @Principles_1st summit this weekend. Jim is just as witty & fun as you’d expect. @_VoteSharp #PrinciplesFirst pic.twitter.com/c6T0lru4P7

— lisa S Marie🧂Y (@frequentbuyer1) February 24, 2024

RELATED STORY: 9 super weird things Trump said to a super weird CPAC

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Despite Trump’s current laughable lawyers, his DOJ could be staffed with skilled radicals

Attorney Alina Habba has been widely mocked for her courtroom blunders and behavior as she defends Donald Trump in the business fraud lawsuit brought by New York Attorney General Letitia James and in E. Jean Carroll’s second defamation trial against the accused rapist.

Former federal prosecutor Ron Filipkowski, who is now editor in chief of the liberal Meidas Touch, had this post on X, formerly known as Twitter:

I’m gonna say you can watch My Cousin Vinny and Legally Blonde back-to-back and you’d be ready to do a better trial than Habba.

— Ron Filipkowski (@RonFilipkowski) January 18, 2024

And “Late Show” host Stephen Colbert said in a monologue earlier this month, “Habba is, to use a bit of legalese, a bad lawyer,” HuffPost reported. He then played a clip from a podcast interview in which Habba, a former fashion executive, said she’d “rather be pretty than smart.” She then added she “can fake being smart.” 

But as Trump has become the first candidate to run a presidential campaign out of a courtroom, Habba has taken on a prominent role in MAGA world by playing the Trump victimization card in numerous interviews on courthouse steps, on Fox News, and other conservative news outlets.

RELATED STORY: How the next Trump-inspired insurrection could unfold and how the administration could respond

And while Trump’s immunity claims may seem a joke, there’s nothing funny regarding the attorney who handled Trump’s appeal seeking immunity from charges brought by special counsel Jack Smith that he conspired to overturn the 2020 presidential election results. The three-judge panel on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia is widely expected to reject Trump’s immunity claim.

As Trump sat watching in the courtroom, his attorney, D. John Sauer, in response to questioning from the judges, suggested that even a president directing SEAL Team 6 to kill a political rival would be an action barred from criminal prosecution unless the president was first impeached by the House and convicted by the Senate.

Mother Jones wrote that “it’s hard to overstate the terrifying absurdity of the argument.” But in  social media posts, candidate Trump has argued that presidents deserve complete immunity from prosecution even for acts that “cross the line.” The Atlantic wrote that “Today’s legal argument could very well be next year’s exercise of presidential power.”

Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich went even further, stating that “Sauer was arguing for the equivalent of the 1933 Enabling Law in Germany,” which facilitated Adolf Hitler’s success in moving the country from democracy to fascism. That law—approved by the German Parliament in March 1933—gave the new chancellor, Hitler, the power to enact new laws without interference from the president or the parliament for four years.

What’s scary is that unlike Habba, Sauer has a blue-chip legal background. He was a Rhodes scholar and a magna cum laude graduate of Harvard Law School. He served as a law clerk to federal appellate court Judge J. Michael Luttig and Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.

In 2017, then-Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley appointed Sauer to serve as the state’s solicitor general and he continued to serve in that post under Hawley’s successor, Eric Schmitt, who also was elected to the U.S. Senate. The New York Times wrote:

As Missouri’s solicitor general, Mr. Sauer took part in a last-ditch effort to keep Mr. Trump in power after his defeat in the 2020 election, filing a motion on behalf of his state and five others in support of an attempt by Texas to have the Supreme Court toss out the results of the vote count in several key swing states.

He also joined in an unsuccessful bid with Texas in asking the Supreme Court to stop the Biden administration from rescinding a Trump-era immigration program that forces certain asylum seekers arriving at the southwestern border to await approval in Mexico.

Sauer left the solicitor general’s post in January 2023. He served as a special assistant attorney general for Louisiana’s Department of Justice in a First Amendment lawsuit against Biden administration officials over their contacts with social media platforms about “misinformation.” 

So could Sauer be another politically ambitious conservative lawyer with an Ivy League law degree looking to make an impression on Trump in hopes of securing a top position at the Department of Justice in a second Trump administration? It’s hard to know for sure, as Sauer keeps a low public profile outside the courtroom and shuns media interviews. But it sounds like he would fit right in, according to a November New York Times article on the subject:

Close allies of Donald J. Trump are preparing to populate a new administration with a more aggressive breed of right-wing lawyer, dispensing with traditional conservatives who they believe stymied his agenda in his first term.

The allies have been drawing up lists of lawyers they view as ideologically and temperamentally suited to serve in a second Trump administration. Their aim is to reduce the chances that politically appointed lawyers would frustrate a more radical White House agenda — as they sometimes did when Mr. Trump was in office, by raising objections to his desires for certain harsher immigration policies or for greater personal control over the Justice Department, among others.

The Times said Trump has even become disenchanted with the Federalist Society, the conservative legal network whose members filled key executive branch legal positions when he was last in office. Trump was particularly enraged at White House and Justice Department legal officials who blocked his efforts to overturn the 2020 election.

John Mitnick, who was fired by Trump as general counsel of the Homeland Security Department in 2019, told the Times that “no qualified attorneys with integrity will have any desire to serve as political appointees” in a second Trump term.

The Guardian reported that Trump’s former senior adviser Stephen Miller, known for his draconian immigration policy, “is playing a key role in seeking lawyers fully in sync with Trump’s radical agenda to expand his power and curb some major agencies.” The Guardian wrote:

His search is for those with unswerving loyalty to Trump, who could back Trump’s increasingly authoritarian talk about plans to “weaponize” the DoJ against critics, including some he has labeled as “vermin.”

Miller, who is not a lawyer, is president of the MAGA-allied group America First Legal, which has been filing lawsuits against the Biden administration. Miller also sits on the board of Project 2025, an effort led by the Heritage Foundation and other conservative groups to map authoritarian policy plans for a second Trump administration.

And that brings us to who Trump might choose for attorney general if he makes his way back to the Oval Office. Back in November, former Rep. Adam Kinzinger, a member of the House Jan. 6 Select Committee, warned in an episode of The Bulwark podcast:

“If he does get through and he wins this time, he's going to interview 100 candidates for attorney general and only take the one that says, 'Mr. President, in essence, I don't care what the Constitution is. I'm going to do whatever you want as your servant at the Department of Justice.'"

And the scary thing is that there is one lawyer who is media savvy, has a blue-chip legal resume, and is a total right-wing monster. His name is Mike Davis.

Tim Miller, a former Republican National Committee spokesperson and Never Trumper, wrote about an interview Davis gave to conservative political commentator Benny Johnson in which Davis discussed what he would do if he were “acting attorney general” for a few weeks in a new Trump term:

But during my three week reign of terror as Trump acting attorney general, before I get chased out of town with my Trump pardon, I will rain hell on Washington, D.C. ... I have five lists, ready to go and they’re growing.

List number one, we’re gonna fire. We’re gonna fire a lot of people in the executive branch, in the deep state.

Number two, we’re gonna indict. We’re gonna indict Joe Biden and Hunter Biden and James Biden and every other scumball, sleazeball, Biden, except for the five year old granddaughter who they refused to acknowledge for five years until the political pressure got to Joe Biden.

Number three, we’re gonna deport. We’re gonna deport a lot of people, 10 million people and growing—anchor babies, their parents, their grandparents. We’re gonna put kids in cages. It’s gonna be glorious. We’re gonna detain a lot of people in the D.C. gulag and Gitmo.

And list number five, I’m gonna recommend a lot of pardons. Every January 6th defendant is gonna get a pardon, especially my hero horn man. He is definitely at the top of the pardon list.

“This is almost comically pathetic chest-beating of a creepy dork,” says Hayes on far-right lawyer Mike Davis. “But again the history of fascism is full of creepy dorks who…used the power of the state to execute their most despicable, violent fantasies.”pic.twitter.com/dRRVhsRKCw

— IT’S TIME FOR JUSTICE (@LiddleSavages) November 22, 2023

In an article for The Bulwark, Miller wrote:

Davis has become an influential voice in MAGA media and activist circles—understandably so, given his crossover appeal as someone who combines legitimate bona fides as a GOP staffer with the incendiary, burn-it-all-down rhetoric that the MAGA base laps up.

And should, God forbid, Trump win a second term, Davis will be emblematic of the type of person who will staff the government. …

Davis’s current gig is spearheading activist groups that fight for right-wing judicial appointments and oppose “Big Tech.” In this role he makes frequent appearances on right-wing media outlets, including primetime Fox and its MAGA competitors (think Real America’s Voice, Newsmax, Bannon’s War Room), where he preaches the Gospel of Trump on issues ranging from the former president’s many indictments to the Biden impeachment.

Davis has an extensive biography on the Federalist Society website. But Miller also exposed Davis’ dark side, including a rant on X about the “violent black underclass” who are “monsters” and should be subjected to “mass incarceration.” He wrote:

Racist demagoguery. Conspiratorial thinking. Promises for retribution against enemies. This is Trump’s stated agenda for 2024. And people like Mike Davis stand ready and willing to execute it.

Davis now heads the Article III Project, which has run ads defending Trump against his four criminal indictments with messages mirroring Trump’s comments that he is a victim of politically motivated prosecutions.

One 60-second digital ad says, “Activist prosecutors and judges have destroyed the rule of law, the scales of justice forever broken and imbalanced. The worst offenders? Those who have weaponized the legal system for political gain against President Trump. Even now they’re resorting to insane legal theories to take him off the ballot,” the ad continues. “They’ve gone after a president of the United States. Do you think they’ll stop there?”

In November, Mehdi Hasan presented an in-depth report on the dangers posed by Davis on MSNBC.

Davis responded to the report and Miller’s Bulwark article with this tasteless post on X that included a homophobic slur. 

😂 Trump’s Dream Team.@mehdirhasan is now on my Lists 2 (indict), 4 (detain), 6 (denaturalize), and 3 (deport). I already have his spot picked out in the DC gulag. But I’ll put him in the women’s cell block, with @Timodc. So these whiny leftists don’t get beat up as often. https://t.co/Ylhb33KVv2

— 🇺🇸 Mike Davis 🇺🇸 (@mrddmia) November 20, 2023

And here’s the kicker: Donald Trump Jr. actually said on his online show “Triggered” in November that he’d actually like to see Davis as attorney general, even on an interim basis, “just to send that shot across the bow of the swamp.”

Donald Trump Jr. says he wants Laura Loomer as White House press secretary and Mike Davis as attorney general; Loomer has described herself as “pro-white nationalism,” Davis says that he wants to enact a “reign of terror” targeting Trump’s enemies. pic.twitter.com/oy3osluVC4

— Media Matters (@mmfa) November 10, 2023

RELATED STORY: Republicans actually published a blueprint for dismantling our democracy. It's called Project 2025

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