By Philip Wegmann for RealClearPolitics

Donald Trump traveled here, to the annual “Faith and Freedom Coalition” policy conference, an event billed by its organizers as the premier national gathering for conservative activists who happen to be people of the Christian faith, to condemn enemies and rebuke old friends, to relive triumphs and revisit gripes, to settle scores and to solidify his grip on the religious right.

The former president spoke to a packed-to-capacity crowd in the ballroom of the Gaylord Opryland for more than an hour and a half, jumping between prepared remarks and inspired insults. It was fire and brimstone from the hip.

Former Vice President Mike Pence, his most loyal lieutenant until the day he refused to overturn the 2020 election, was “a human conveyer belt.” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, the Kentucky Republican who backed Pence’s decision to certify the election results, “an old broken-down crow.” Rep. Adam Schiff, the California Democrat helping to lead the January 6 Committee investigation, meanwhile, was just “a bad human being.” Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, “a mob boss.”

At a moment when nearly 70% of Americans believe the country is headed in the wrong direction, Trump mostly skimmed over topics like inflation and the economy. President Biden was an afterthought Friday, even as Republicans prepare to make the midterms a referendum on his tenure. These were Trump’s first remarks since the House investigation of the Jan. 6 riots at the U.S. Capitol, and Trump had his own counterprograming prepared.

He compared that new investigation to the old “hoaxes,” inviting his supporters, if they hadn’t already, to dismiss out of hand Democrat allegations that he fomented an insurrection: “Just insert January 6th instead of Russia, Russia, Russia.”

“It’s no coincidence that all of the same people who staged the ‘Russia, Russia, Russia’ hoax are now pushing this insurrection hoax,” Trump continued. And the longer Trump held forth on what he saw as his past and present mistreatment, the more prophetic Sen. Lindsey Graham sounded.

RELATED: Trump Pens Epic 12-Page Response To Jan. 6 Hearings, Hints At Announcing 2024 Campaign

The two remain close, speaking frequently and sharing meals often. “I’m playing golf with him on Sunday,” the South Carolina Republican told RealClearPolitics during a backstage interview. And there is “no question” in Graham’s mind that Trump remains the leader of the GOP even after more than a year out of office. “Just look at polling,” the senator said. “he’s the strongest force in the Republican Party.”

Politicians generally need a reason to obsess over poll numbers. Trump’s motivation is obvious. He has been publicly flirting with another White House run for months, and Graham told RCP the nomination is already his if he wants it. “I don’t think anyone can beat him in a primary if he runs a disciplined campaign,” he said. “Now can he win again, yeah, but he is going to have to get back the people that he lost.” Who are the voters who have gone astray? “Suburban women.” Were they still turned off by the way the Trump presidency ended, and would that keep them from returning to the Trump fold? Graham doubts it.

The senator said that was “a terrible day for the country” and hopes “the people who defiled the Capitol go to jail.” But he doesn’t have faith in the commission set up to investigate those riots and by this point “January 6 is baked in the cake.”

“I think what will be outcome determinative is can President Trump stay disciplined enough to talk about fixing the problems that Biden has created,” Graham told RCP before rattling off a list of Trump’s accomplishments: Energy independence, countering Russian aggression in Europe, peace agreements in the Middle East, Operation Warp Speed to deliver the COVID vaccine. “If he can talk about, ‘I’m the guy that can fix the problems that’s been created, then he’s got a damn good chance of winning,” Graham insisted before pausing to add, “if it is a grievance campaign, then he is gonna have a problem.”

If Trump heard that advice before, he wasn’t ready to take it to heart Friday. While he checked off each of the policy boxes Graham outlined, he spent more time savaging his enemies than highlighting his accomplishments.

“They know that we are leading in every single poll, both Republicans and Democrats,” the previous president said of the January 6 Committee, “and they don’t like that.” After all, he added, that investigation was being led by “very vicious people.” The whole thing was “a theatrical production of political fiction.” Perhaps most damning, at least in Trump’s mind, the primetime hearings are “getting terrible ratings.”

RELATED: Report: Trump Considering GOP Rep. Elise Stefanik As Potential 2024 Running Mate

Maybe this routine won’t work later down the road, but the conservative faithful gathered in Nashville were on board. They liked being teased. When Trump mentioned the next Republican president, asking “I wonder who that will be,” the crowd erupted. And when Trump asked outright, “Would anybody like me to run for president?” they were on their feet chanting “USA! USA! USA!”

Other potential presidential contenders have already introduced themselves. Former Ambassador Nikki Haley spoke Thursday. Sens. Tim Scott of South Carolina and Rick Scott of Florida, Friday morning. Each was more modest, treating the event less like a cattle call and more like a pep rally ahead of the midterms. All signs seem to point toward a coming shellacking. The president keeps slipping in the polls, and his face keeps popping up at gas stations – motorists are slapping stickers of Biden saying “I did that!” on gas pumps to vent their pain. What will motivate voters come November, then? Classic kitchen table concerns, or the complicated findings of a committee on Capitol Hill?

“I understand that the January 6 committee has removed some of their hearings because of no viewership or something of that nature,” Tennessee Sen. Marsha Blackburn replied. “But people are concerned about what is happening to their paycheck, and their job, and their community and to their children,” she told RCP backstage before Trump arrived at the convention center.

Parents are already worried right now, the Tennessee Republican continued, about “drugs in the street and fentanyl that is being put on dollar bills and gummy bears. And those are real-life, everyday problems. And I’m so grateful people are concerned about those.”

On some of those fronts, Republicans already smell blood. They have relentlessly hammered Biden since he came into office, first on his handling of a lingering pandemic and now on his stewardship of an increasingly shaky economy. And Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel credits Trump for steeling GOP resolve.

“I think he taught us to stand up for what we believe and not back down. And I think that’s key,” she told RCP hours before the former president took the stage. “I think sometimes we were ‘Mr. Nice Guy,’” the chairwoman said of previous Republican generations. “We want to be nice, and we want to bring people into our party. But we also have to stand up for what we believe when we are getting rolled.”

RELATED: One Of The January 6 Committee’s Conspiracy Theories About Riot Debunked By Capitol Police

It remains to be seen whether Trump’s focus on personal grievances distracts from his party’s efforts to regain congressional majorities. Republicans have generally sidestepped the January 6 Committee, hoping that if they don’t give it extra oxygen, the fire will die out. Not Trump. He all but made the issue part of his reelection platform.

“Most people should not be treated the way they’re being treated,” he said of those charged in connection to the storming of the Capitol. “If I become president someday, if I decide to do it, I will be looking at them very, very seriously for pardons.”

Again, the crowd signaled their approval just like they did any time Trump hinted at a return to the presidency. There wasn’t anything subtle on Friday. Not his appetite for retribution. Not his White House ambitions. Not even the music. Trump danced off stage, and the delighted crowd hollered, and the speakers blared “Hold On, I’m Comin’.”

After the ballroom emptied and Trump departed, three senior voters best described as sweet, southern church ladies caught up with RealClearPolitics to give a political testimony. One had attended the Jan. 6 “Stop the Steal” rally. Another had planned to but couldn’t catch a flight in time. All three gave “2,000 Mules,” the film by Dinesh D’Souza alleging a conspiracy to steal the election, rave reviews. Former Attorney General Bill Barr mocked the movie. They loved it.

The findings of the January 6 Committee, as far as they were concerned, were about as credible as the allegations that Trump colluded with Russia. Their support for the former president they had just heard from, unwavering. Was there anything, anything at all, he could do or say that might cost him their vote? “Absolutely nothing,” replied Diana Smith of Georgia. “Look at what Democrats have done. Biden and Kamala are destroying America.”

Syndicated with permission from Real Clear Wire.

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