Former US president Donald Trump on Friday lashed out at the committee investigating the January 6 insurrection and continued to tease his plans for a third presidential run.
It was his first public appearance since the committee began its hearings.
Speaking to religious conservatives at a sprawling resort near the Grand Ole Opry House in Nashville, Mr Trump blasted the committee’s efforts as a “theatrical production of partisan political fiction” and insisted he had done nothing wrong.
“What you’re seeing is a complete and total lie. It’s a complete and total fraud,” he told the Faith and Freedom Coalition’s Road to Majority conference.
He dismissed the video footage and testimony presented by the committee — including first-hand accounts from senior aides and his own family members — as having been selectively edited.
He also downplayed the insurrection as “a simple protest that got out of hand”.
Mr Trump’s appearance at an event long known as a testing ground for presidential hopefuls comes as he has been considering when he might formally launch another White House campaign.
The debate, according to people familiar with the discussions, centres on whether to make a formal announcement later this summer or fall or, in accordance with tradition, wait until after the November midterm elections.
While allies insist he has yet to make a final decision about his plans, Mr Trump for months has been broadcasting his intentions and continued to tease them on Friday.
“One of the most urgent tasks facing the next Republican president — I wonder who that will be,” Mr Trump said at one point, prompting a standing ovation and chants of “USA!”
“Would anybody like me to run for president?” he asked the crowd, unleashing more cheers.
Ralph Reed, chair of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, said: “We don’t know whether or not he will run, although certainly given his speech, I think he wanted to let everybody know that that is his plan.”
“I think a lot of Trump’s future plans are directly based on (Joe) Biden, and I think the more Biden continues to stumble on the world stage and on the domestic stage, people forget about the downside, the dark side of Trump’s presidency,” said Bryan Lanza, a GOP strategist and former Trump campaign official.
An announcement in the near future could complicate efforts by other ambitious Republicans to mount their own campaigns. Former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley, who was ambassador to the United Nations under Mr Trump, for instance, has said she would not run against him.
And there also are concerns that a near-term announcement could hurt Republicans going into the final stretch of a midterm congressional campaign that appears increasingly favourable to the party.
A Trump candidacy could unite otherwise despondent Democratic voters, reviving the energy that lifted the party in the 2018 and 2020 campaigns.
Republicans want the November election to be framed as a referendum on the first two years of Mr Biden’s presidency. They do not want anything, including Mr Trump, to throw them off that trajectory.
Regardless of his decision, the aura of inevitability that Mr Trump sought to create from the moment he left the White House has been punctured. A long list of other Republicans have been laying the groundwork for their own potential campaigns and some have made clear that a Trump candidacy would have little influence on their own decisions.
They include Mr Trump’s former vice president, Mike Pence, who has been hailed by the January 6 committee as someone who put the national interest ahead of his own political considerations.
Eyeing a White House bid, Mr Pence is maintaining a brisk political schedule focused on drawing attention to Democratic vulnerabilities. But his challenges were put into stark relief on Friday, as Mr Trump continued to blast him for failing to go along with his scheme to overturn the results of the 2020 election.
While he denied ever calling Mr Pence a wimp, Mr Trump railed against his former deputy, saying: “Mike did not have the courage to act.” That drew applause from a crowd that Mr Pence, himself an evangelical Christian, has spoken before numerous times.
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