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2 possible 2024 presidential candidates, Trump and Pence, gave speeches in Washington

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Two potential 2024 Republican presidential candidates came to Washington this week to make their cases - one, the former president who sparked an insurrection trying to cling to power - the other, the former vice president who refused to go along with the plot. NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith reports.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Donald Trump made his first trip to Washington since refusing to attend Joe Biden's inauguration to deliver a policy speech about crime. And for 50 or so minutes, he largely stuck to the teleprompter, painting a dystopian image of America.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DONALD TRUMP: Our streets are riddled with needles and soaked with the blood of innocent victims.

KEITH: Trump was speaking at a conference of the America First Policy Institute, a group run by former Trump administration officials. Trump called for finishing the border wall, moving the homeless to tent encampments on the outskirts of major cities and executing convicted drug traffickers. But even that was all rather low energy until he went off script and veered to the one thing that truly animates Trump and his hardcore supporters.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: I always say, I ran the first time, and I won. Then I ran a second time, and I did much better. We got millions and millions more votes. And you know what? That's going to be a story for a long time. What a disgrace it was. But we may just have to do it again. We have to straighten out our country.

(CHEERING, APPLAUSE)

KEITH: Trump did get more votes in 2020 than he did in 2016, but Joe Biden got even more. Nearly two years later, Trump still hasn't publicly admitted he lost. In his remarks, Trump never said the name Mike Pence, the vice president who became a target of his attacks on January 6, who hid with his family in security detail in the Capitol as rioters searching for him chanted hang Mike Pence. And Pence, in his own policy speech in a different Washington, D.C., hotel ballroom, only said Trump's name when referring to the accomplishments of the Trump-Pence administration. His criticisms, if you can call them that, were indirect.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MIKE PENCE: Now, some people may choose to focus on the past, but elections are about the future. And I believe conservatives must focus on the future to win back America.

(APPLAUSE)

KEITH: He unfurled what he called his freedom agenda - a pretty standard list of conservative policy goals. When pressed on the divide between him and Trump, Pence deflected.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PENCE: 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.

KEITH: Sarah Longwell, a Republican political consultant, has been hosting a series of focus groups with Trump voters. She says they don't want to talk about the January 6 investigations and, by extension, the 2020 election.

SARAH LONGWELL: Because the 2020 election being stolen is starting to become something that's just a little bit boring to them.

KEITH: Longwell, who opposed Trump in 2020, says she hears more and more ambivalence from voters about another Trump run.

LONGWELL: One of the things that I'm hearing from these voters, in addition to expressing concerns about Trump's electability, is that there's also a lot of new people that they're very interested in. You know, they're extremely enthusiastic about Ron DeSantis.

KEITH: The Florida governor. And although Pence is making all the moves of a man who plans to run for president - traveling to early voting states, preparing to release a book - Longwell says he's a politician without a natural constituency. Trump true believers see him as a traitor. And...

LONGWELL: Mike Pence is just seen as kind of the boring old establishment that the Republican base has long moved on from.

KEITH: On the pro-Trump streaming network Right Side Broadcasting, one of the hosts asked Brooke Rollins, who heads the America First Policy Institute, whether all the proposals they're developing would make a second Trump term more productive. The easy answer would have been yes, but that isn't what Rollins said.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BROOKE ROLLINS: I think whether it's Donald Trump or any other number of great Americans, whomever it ends up being in the next White House on our side, we're going to be ready.

KEITH: Whomever it ends up being. Tamara Keith, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.