AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Thousands of conservatives have gathered just outside of Washington D.C. for the annual Conservative Political Action Conference. After eight years of feeling under assault by the Obama administration, the conservative movement has come together at CPAC for a victory party of sorts this year. And today they heard from some key members of the Trump White House. NPR political editor Domenico Montanaro is at the National Harbor resort just a few miles away in Maryland where CPAC is being held. He's on the line now. Hey, there, Domenico.
DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: Hey, Audie.
CORNISH: So the big event today was this joint appearance by White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus and the chief strategist, Steve Bannon, former editor of Breitbart News. How come they did it together?
MONTANARO: Well, you know, because they're the most influential people in Trump's White House. You know, there's lots of discussion about whether or not they get along, of course. And they've been doing something of a buddy movie, frankly, when you see them out here. They're saying everything is fine. They've done lots of interviews. I guess they're trying to sell - where some see conflict and tension, they're saying that they're complimentary.
REINCE PRIEBUS: I think the biggest misconception is everything that you're reading.
PRIEBUS: We share an office suite together. We're basically together from 6:30 in the morning until about 11 o'clock at night.
STEVE BANNON: I have a little thing called The War Room. He has a fireplace with, you know, nice sofas.
MONTANARO: (Laughter) So he's telling everybody he has a fireplace and nice sofas. Everything's going great. But these are very different people. Priebus kind of acknowledged that when he said that Bannon represented the conservative movement, while he represents the party, and that Donald Trump was really the one who was able to bring them together. Trump really is the glue that binds and is keeping this conservative movement together. He tried to say that they'd be unstoppable as long as there's no split, of course.
CORNISH: Tell me a little more about what Steve Bannon had to say because he doesn't speak to the mainstream media very often. What were his takeaways?
MONTANARO: Yeah, that's definitely true. You know, clearly this is a guy who's been the inspirational leader for Trump. That was clear on stage two. Priebus is much more of the tactician. Bannon - much more into that world view. And that's something that is driving the Trump White House. He has very different views than traditional conservatism, which is usually what drives CPAC here, the Conservative Political Action Conference.
You know, Bannon called for the deconstruction of the administrative state (laughter), which has to do with breaking down government and regulations. He cavalierly talked about the idea of America first and, quote, "sovereignty," which is something that's - really used to be a fringe in the conservative movement, but that Trump and Bannon have made front and center of what's driving it. You know, that includes things like being against free trade, more of a protectionist foreign policy. And he talked about national culture, which is interesting.
You know, Trump has really complicated a relationship with this group here at CPAC. This group had been behind Ted Cruz, behind the Pauls for years. But when Priebus and Bannon weren't speaking, there were chants of Trump, Trump, Trump, and it does seem the takeover is complete.
CORNISH: Back on the program, there was another high-profile visit from the White House administration - Betsy DeVos, secretary of education. And she's showing up there basically a day after the Trump administration withdrew guidance from the Obama era on the rights of transgender students. And that's a move that frankly felt like a victory for those in the room at CPAC - right? - but there were reports that DeVos wasn't on board. How did she talk about this today?
MONTANARO: Yeah, this was really interesting because she came here and had some brief remarks and then was interviewed afterward by a Trump supporter and a CNN political commentator. And she gave a fairly defiant and ideological speech - those remarks early on. She hit the education establishment and the media, but she tried to walk a fine line when it came to transgender rights. Let's listen to what she had to say.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
BETSY DEVOS: This issue was a very huge example of the Obama administration's overreach - to suggest a one-size-fits-all federal government approach - top-down approach - to issues that are best dealt with and solved at a personal level and a local level.
MONTANARO: You know, it's interesting 'cause you noted going in that there was lots of interest in DeVos here today because there were these reported tensions between her and the attorney general, Jeff Sessions, on the language rescinding that Obama Administration guidance on transgender rights. She wound up putting out her own statements - separate from the joint statement that she and Sessions put out - echoing some of what she said today and noting that the education department and schools also needed to protect transgender students from bullying.
CORNISH: That's NPR political editor Domenico Montanaro at the Conservative Political Action Conference, or CPAC. Domenico, thanks so much.
MONTANARO: Thank you, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.