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White House Chief Strategist Stephen Bannon speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland, U.S., February 23, 2017. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts(reuters_tickers)
By Richard Cowan and Andy Sullivan
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Donald Trump's chief strategist Steve Bannon, known as a forceful influence in the White House, made a rare public appearance on Thursday to appeal to conservatives to unite behind the Republican president as he presses his agenda.
Bannon took to the stage along with White House chief of staff Reince Priebus at the four-day Conservative Political Action Conference, telling the gathering, "We want you to have our back" in upcoming battles, and denouncing media criticism of Trump.
The early days of the administration have been marked by deep post-election divisions between Trump backers and liberals over the new president's travel ban on refugees and people from seven Muslim-majority countries, as well as moves to increase deportations of illegal immigrants and to build a wall on the southwestern border with Mexico.
While conservatives are celebrating Trump's role in delivering them a victory in November's election, his agenda veers from traditional right-wing principles like limited government and open trade.
Republicans who control the White House and Congress also are arguing over how to dismantle and replace former Democratic President Barack Obama's landmark healthcare law.
Bannon and Priebus both sought to dispel a sense of disorder in the White House portrayed in media accounts.
Referring to media criticism of Trump and echoing the president's attacks on the media, Bannon warned, "It's going to get worse every day" as Trump presses forward with his 2016 campaign promises.
"If you think they're going to give you your country back without a fight you are sadly mistaken," said Bannon, who formerly ran the confrontational right-wing website Breitbart News. He blamed the "corporatist, globalist media that are adamantly opposed to an economic nationalist agenda" under Trump.
The CPAC conference, once a fringe event but is now decidedly in the Republican mainstream, is being held in suburban Maryland, attended by an estimated 10,000 activists.
White House adviser Kellyanne Conway, in remarks to the group, credited Trump with revitalizing the Republican Party's right wing.
"Every great movement ends up being a little bit sclerotic and dusty after a time, and I think they (conservatives) need an infusion of energy," Conway said.
Referring to Trump's expected attendance at the conference on Friday, she said, "I think by tomorrow this will be TPAC, this year. No doubt.”
CPAC organizers are trying to steer clear of controversy over the alt-right movement, a loose grouping that includes neo-Nazis, white supremacists and anti-Semites whom Trump has been slow to denounce. Breitbart has a following among some of these groups and in the past Bannon had called the media organization a platform for the movement.
Some Breitbart staffers were scheduled to participate in CPAC panel discussions.
"We don't think there's any role for the alt-right in the conservative movement," Matt Schlapp, head of the American Conservative Union, which organizes CPAC, said in a phone interview.
Just a month into his presidency, Trump is already being compared by some conservatives to their hero, President Ronald Reagan. He swept to power in 1981 with a small-government, free-trade, tax-cutting agenda that energized the Republican right-wing and molded the views of many of the CPAC faithful.
Trump so far has been "pitch-perfect with conservatives as he starts his administration," said Schlapp.
Even so, some conservatives, including some at CPAC, are nervously watching Trump.
Trump has proposed a major expansion of government to police immigration. He has already canceled a trade deal with Asia-Pacific neighbors, and he has sharply criticized one between the United States, Mexico and Canada.
"I always worry any discussion about trade competition and tariffs ... misdirects the focus," said CPAC stalwart Grover Norquist, a powerful advocate of low taxes and small government.
On taxes, Trump has backed cuts in rates, but his position on a Republican tax package under debate in Congress is unclear.
Whether Republicans and Trump can come to terms over such issues will help determine how much real change they can effect in Washington, and how the voters treat them in 2018 in the mid-term elections, when ruling parties normally lose ground.
Some Republicans have expressed disappointment that Trump has not moved faster on tax reform and on repealing Obamacare, Obama's law on health insurance. Trump has issued a flurry of executive orders but has not yet publicly proposed legislation of any kind, unlike recent first-term presidents.
Schlapp credited Trump with naming the most conservative Cabinet in a half-century and nominating a Supreme Court justice, Neil Gorsuch, who has conservatives' blessings.
Trump has also thrilled conservatives by working hand-in-glove with congressional Republicans on overturning or gutting a handful of Obama-era regulations, including one that prevented coal companies from dumping waste into rivers and streams.
(Additional reporting by John Whitesides, Susan Heavey and Doina Chiacu; Editing by Leslie Adler, Cynthia Osterman and Frances Kerry)