Republican base sounds ready for Trump's promised 'retribution,' with some exceptions

"I would like to see him actually drain the swamp," one supporter at CPAC said.

February 25, 2024, 8:07 AM

Former President Donald Trump vowed at last year's Conservative Political Action Conference to be his supporters' "retribution" -- and many attendees this year seemed eager to see what that looks like if he is reelected to the White House.

When more than a dozen attendees were asked by ABC News what they'd like to see in a potential Trump term, many organically said they wanted some version of mass firings in the federal government and payback against President Joe Biden, with many also saying Trump's detractors within the GOP should be politically exiled.

"I would like to see him actually drain the swamp," said Laura McGarraugh, a nurse from Austin, Texas, using a favored Trump term for Washington. "I liked Vivek [Ramaswamy]'s idea: fire 70% of the deep state, the people that are government employees."

Ramaswamy's proposal, as he has acknowledged, would likely spur legal challenges over worker protections.

Trump has both touted and downplayed how much vengeance he'll inflict on his perceived enemies should he return to the Oval Office.

The former president in June wrote on his social media platform that he would "appoint a real special 'prosecutor' to go after" Biden and his family, whom he called "corrupt," as well as "all others involved with the destruction of our elections, borders, & country itself!"

But, in his speech at CPAC this year, on Saturday, Trump said: "The unprecedented success of the United State of America will be my ultimate and absolute revenge," echoing similar rhetoric on the campaign trail.

A handful of attendees brought up that change in tone to suggest that he wouldn't weaponize his power should he win this November.

Still, Trump also warned on Saturday that the day after the general election -- if he wins -- "will be our new liberation day" but for his and his supporters' enemies, "it will be their judgment day."

Many CPAC attendees advocated for a more scorched earth stance should he retake the presidency, with some caveats.

"If it's warranted," said Vanessa Alban, a homemaker from Ocean City, Maryland. "Clearly some people in the Biden administration have failed this country. So I would support them being fired."

And while many conferencegoers believed that Trump would put an emphasis on policy, they were supportive of him specifically targeting Biden and his family over unproven claims of wrongdoing and influence peddling -- allegations that are currently at the heart of House Republicans' impeachment effort, which the White House denies as partisan.

"I think it's very important. They're going to have to get into the weeds on all that," said Mark Wehrum, a physician from Orlando, Florida."

"I think charges are coming for him [Biden] and they should be," added Sharon Schifflett, a retired elementary school teacher from Connecticut. "I think he's compromised."

PHOTO: Former President, Donald J. Trump speaks at the CPAC Conference in Washington, Mar. 4, 2023.
Former President, Donald J. Trump speaks at the CPAC Conference in Washington, Mar. 4, 2023.
Pacific Press/LightRocket via Ge

Biden himself has pushed back on the impeachment push as politically motivated, previously saying, "I get up every day not focused on impeachment, I've got a job to do."

But the CPAC crowd's appetite for revenge didn't stop with just Biden -- many said there is no longer a place in the party for some of the candidates who ran against Trump for the 2024 GOP presidential nomination.

Attendees who spoke with ABC News said there is still a place for Ramaswamy, a hard-liner whose 2024 campaign was based largely around defending Trump, while Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who butted heads with the former president for months as his most serious primary rival, could be "rehabilitated."

But they scoffed at the idea that there was still a place in the party for former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, who is hanging on in the 2024 GOP primary; former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, one of the GOP's most vocal Trump critics; and former Vice President Mike Pence -- who remained loyal as the former president's No. 2 until he helped certify the results of the 2020 election as required by the Constitution, breaking with Trump's insistence otherwise.

"I think Haley burned those bridges," said Jonathan Grier, a physician from Altoona, Pennsylvania, who said he was at the Ellipse near the White House on Jan. 6, 2021, where Trump spoke but did not go in the U.S. Capitol building.

"Christie can go jump in a lake. There's no place for him. He's worthless," Grier said. "Pence can go jump in the same lake Christie just jumped into."

"Pence is a weasel, he's a snake in the grass," Grier added. "He bailed on Donald when the going got tough. And I don't respect that. I'm sorry, I just don't."

CPAC's organizers and attendees appeared to agree with the sentiment.

The conference in recent years has bragged about not inviting more establishment-oriented lawmakers like Utah Republican Sen. Mitt Romney, a former GOP presidential nominee, and speakers at times seemed to take as many shots at fellow Republicans as Democrats over appearing insufficiently loyal to Trump and his brand of politics.

Mike Lindell, the MyPillow chief and prominent election denier, received a rock star's welcome when he took the stage Saturday before bashing "uniparty Republicans" for not supporting his baseless claims of election fraud and pushing his effort to recall Wisconsin state House Speaker Robin Vos, a Republican.

PHOTO: Former President and 2024 presidential hopeful Donald Trump arrives to speak during the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) meeting on Feb. 24, 2024, in National Harbor, Maryland.
Former President and 2024 presidential hopeful Donald Trump arrives to speak during the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) meeting on Feb. 24, 2024, in National Harbor, Maryland.
Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images

While the tack pleased attendees here, many of whom said they enjoyed attending CPAC because of the chance to interact with "like-minded people," conservatives who came up in the pre-Trump Republican Party said the conference and its tone were unrecognizable.

"CPAC used to be an event where a broad ideological swath of the party would come together under the conservative banner," said Mike DuHaime, a former Republican National Committee political director and aide on Christie's now-suspended campaign.

"Even while many people disagreed on some issues, most followed [Ronald] Reagan's maxim that my 80% friend is not my 20% enemy. Not anymore," DuHaime said. "Now, if someone is not 100% on board with 100% of Trump's agenda, personal or policy, you will not be deemed conservative enough."

Not every attendee at the conference wanted Trump to put a premium on revenge, instead urging him to focus on the country's ills.

Thomas Siens, an economist from Fort Worth, Texas, dismissed "all this dictator talk," pointing to Trump's remarks that his success in another term would serve as his critics' comeuppance.

But even those who wanted more policy focus suggested it wasn't for lack of cause for potential retribution.

"I just want him to focus on our country and not worry about revenge," said Pat Thomas, a retired hay farmer from North Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. "That'll come in time."