Former US president predicted a ‘major war in Europe’ before teasing another White House run at a speech in Florida.
Donald Trump condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and predicted a “major war in Europe” but partially blamed Joe Biden and “delinquent” Nato leaders for the crisis.
Addressing an adoring crowd in Orlando, Florida, the former US president attacked Mr Biden as “weak and incompetent” and said: “Putin is playing Biden like a drum”.
“This horrific disaster would never have happened if our election was not rigged and if I was the president,” he said, referencing his baseless claims he was the true winner of the 2020 election.
Mr Trump once again teased the prospect of another run for the White House, saying of the November 2024 election: “We did it twice, and we’ll do it again. We’re going to be doing it again, a third time”.
The thousands who had gathered at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) roared its approval at the comments, breaking into chants of “four more years”.
In the more than 90-minute speech, Mr Trump claimed Mr Biden and the radical left were “trying to replace American democracy with woke tyranny”.
While calling the situation in Ukraine “a catastrophic disaster”, Mr Trump went on to attack Democrats for rushing defend the country’s borders “while they’re destroying our own borders” with failed immigration policies.
In a shift from his earlier praise of Mr Putin’s assault on Ukraine as “genius”, he condemned Moscow’s all-out attack on Ukraine as “appalling”.
However he defended his previous comments. “The problem is not that Putin is smart, which, of course, he’s smart,” Mr Trump said.
“The real problem is that our leaders are dumb,” he said, adding that the leaders of Nato member states were “all delinquent”
He struck an uncharacteristically empathetic tone as he expressed sympathy for Ukraine saying: “We are praying for the proud people of Ukraine. God bless them all”.
Trump hails ‘brave’ Zelensky
Mr Trump also had warm words for the Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky, calling him a “brave man” as he defiantly remained in the capital Kyiv amid the onslaught from Russian forces.
It was Mr Trump’s 2019 phone call with the Ukrainian leader that led to him being impeached by Democrats in the US House of Representatives.
In Orlando on Saturday night Mr Trump said: “I like him because during that ridiculous impeachment waste of time…. the president of Ukraine said ‘he did absolutely nothing wrong’.”
He also accused his predecessors of failing to counter Russia, citing Russia’s invasion of Georgia under George W Bush and Crimea under Barack Obama.
“I stand as the only president of the 21st century on whose watch Russia did not invade another country,” he bragged.
In an interview released earlier on Saturday, Mr Biden mocked Mr Trump’s comment that the Russian leader is a “genius”.
“I put as much stock in Trump saying that Putin is a genius than when he called himself a stable genius,” Mr Biden said.
As he alluded to a return to the White House, Mr Trump repeated his 2016 campaign slogan to “make America great again” and vowed to complete his signature border wall “in three weeks”.
Mr Trump’s continued hold over the Republican base was evident once more at the jamboree, which describes itself as the largest annual gathering of grassroots of conservatives on the planet.
“Trump 2024” flags, hats and badges filled the large conference centre in Orlando along with a golden statue of the former president.
‘I’m praying he runs’
Many of those who had travelled from across the US to attend the conference expressed their unwavering belief that the 75-year-old will make another bid for the presidency.
Shonna Smith, 58, a resort manager from Arkansas, said she had been hoping Mr Trump would announce his candidacy on Saturday night.
“I’m praying he [runs],” she said, adding his credentials as a businessman made him the best candidate to lead the country.
“Right now I think we look weak [on the world stage],” she said in reference to Mr Biden’s handling of the Ukraine crisis
Karen Zaletel, a 60-year-old former stock broker, said she was convinced Mr Trump would be victorious in 2024.
“Everyone gave him a standing ovation,” she said, describing his speech as “positive and funny”.
She added that she was “really impressed” by his energy levels.