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Trump paints a grim picture and Pence tries to look ahead in dueling D.C. speeches

Former President Donald Trump speaks at the America First Policy Institute Agenda Summit in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday.
Mandel Ngan
AFP via Getty Images
Former President Donald Trump speaks at the America First Policy Institute Agenda Summit in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday.

Updated July 26, 2022 at 8:51 PM ET

Hours after his former No. 2 and possible 2024 primary rival gave a speech outlining a "road map for conservative leaders," former President Donald Trump delivered a grim and rambling speech about violent crime in his first appearance in D.C. since he skipped Joe Biden's Inauguration Day ceremony and left the White House in 2021.

"We need an all-out effort to defeat violent crime in America, and strongly defeat it, and be tough and be nasty and be mean if we have to," Trump said in remarks to the America First Policy Institute, not far from where he delivered a speech on Jan. 6, 2021, in which he encouraged supporters he knew were armed to march on the U.S. Capitol to stop the counting of electoral votes.

Trump's speech echoed themes from his inauguration speech in 2017, in which he spoke about crime-ridden streets and "American carnage."

"Our country is now a cesspool of crime," he said Tuesday. "We have blood, death and suffering on a scale once unthinkable because of the Democrat Party's effort to destroy and dismantle law enforcement all throughout America."

Trump detailed his set of policy prescriptions to combat the bleak picture of American society he painted, calling for police squad cars to be parked on "every corner," moving the homeless out of cities to "large parcels of inexpensive land in the outer reaches of the cities," imposing the death penalty on convicted drug dealers, and reinstating stop-and-frisk policies.

According to the Brennan Center for Justice, the murder rate rose by nearly 30% in large cities in 2020, the most recent year for which data is available. More than 75% of murders that year were commit­ted with a fire­arm, according to the CDC.

What began as a speech that appeared to stick to the teleprompter's policy message of crime devolved into a crass comedy routine that mocked transgender people and the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack.

Competing visions of the GOP

Former Vice President Mike Pence answers questions from the crowd during the Young Americas Foundation Student Conference on Tuesday in Washington, D.C.
Nathan Howard / Getty Images
Getty Images
Former Vice President Mike Pence answers questions from the crowd during the Young Americas Foundation Student Conference on Tuesday in Washington, D.C.

The dueling speeches in the nation's capital highlight competing visions of the future of the Republican Party.

But it's a contrast former Vice President Mike Pence was reticent to call out.

In the Q&A portion of an event at the Young America's Foundation on Tuesday morning, Pence was asked by a student whether the divide between the former running mates extends to the rest of the conservative movement.

Pence demurred, saying he "couldn't be more proud of the record of the Trump-Pence administration."

"I'll always be grateful for the opportunity to serve as vice president," he said. "I don't know that our movement is that divided. I don't know that the president and I differ on issues — we may differ on focus."

In his remarks, Pence laid out a "freedom agenda" that he said he hopes will be a "beacon to help Americans navigate through these rough waters" — emphasizing economic opportunity and turning back a "pernicious woke agenda." He praised the Supreme Court's recent decision eliminating the federal right to an abortion, noting it was made possible because of three justices appointed by the "Trump-Pence administration."

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At times, Pence seemed to walk right up to the line of calling out his former boss by name, but instead opted for veiled references.

"Conservatism is bigger than any one moment, any one election or any one person," he said, later adding: "We always right the ship when our leaders veer off course."

He stressed multiple times that elections are about the future, not the past.

"Frankly, 2022 may be the best chance we will ever have to build a lasting majority to invigorate the conservative movement to fulfill conservatism's purpose and to save our nation from the left wing tyranny socialism and decline," he said.

Pence and Trump have held separate rallies for candidates representing their own brands of conservatism, highlighting the contrast in how each wishes to shape the direction of the GOP.

Ahead of Arizona's Republican gubernatorial primary election, Pence supported Karrin Taylor Robson, while Trump's pick, Kari Lake, runs a campaign that echoes his false claims about the outcome of the 2020 presidential election.

In Georgia's Republican primary for governor, Pence's pick, Gov. Brian Kemp, defeated Trump-backed challenger former Sen. David Perdue

Shadow of Jan. 6 hearings

The pair of speeches comes days after the eighth public hearingof the House select committee investigating the attack on the Capitol. Throughout the hearings, the committee has made the case that Trump chose not to act as his supporters laid siege to the Capitol, chanting "Hang Mike Pence," as part of a last-ditch effort to overturn the results of the presidential election.

Pence has defended his actions on Jan. 6 as he presided over the counting of electoral ballots at the Capitol, telling the conservative Federalist Society in February that Trump was "wrong" to suggest he could overturn the results.

"I had no right to overturn the election. The presidency belongs to the American people and the American people alone," hesaid at the time. "And frankly, there is no idea more un-American than the notion that any one person could choose the American president."

According to a recent NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll, a majority of Americans blame Trump for what took place on Jan. 6 (57%), but only 18% of Republicans think Trump is culpable.

Moving on from Jan. 6 to 2024

Sarah Longwell, a longtime GOP consultant and the executive director of the Republican Accountability Project, says she thinks Trump's continued criticism of the Jan. 6 committee — or the "unselect committee of political hacks and thugs," as he referred to it Tuesday — could hurt him with voters.

"Trump relitigating the 2020 election and Jan. 6, I'm not sure that's the right strategy," she told NPR. "One of the things I hear in focus groups all the time from Republican voters is how much they want to move on from the Jan. 6 conversation."

Longwell says she sees a newfound hesitancy among Republican voters when considering Trump as the Republican presidential nominee in 2024.

"Prior to the Jan. 6 hearings, we'd done dozens and dozens of focus groups with Trump voters, and [we'd] always ask them, 'Would you like to see Trump run in 2024?' And you'd get about half the group or more that would say that they were interested in seeing him run," she said.

"Since the committee hearings began, we've had four groups where zero people wanted him to run again," Longwell said. "That's a really marked contrast and their rationale seems to come down to electability."

But she says even with the investigations and a dose of voter fatigue, Trump could still easily emerge from a crowded Republican primary, as he did in 2016.

NPR's Tamara Keith contributed to this report.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Barbara Sprunt is a producer on NPR's Washington desk, where she reports and produces breaking news and feature political content. She formerly produced the NPR Politics Podcast and got her start in radio at as an intern on NPR's Weekend All Things Considered and Tell Me More with Michel Martin. She is an alumnus of the Paul Miller Reporting Fellowship at the National Press Foundation. She is a graduate of American University in Washington, D.C., and a Pennsylvania native.