Trump pitches 2024 election as most important for nation’s future during Houston campaign stop

Former president Donald Trump holds his first 2024 campaign rally in Waco on March 25. (Leila Saidane/The Texas Tribune, Leila Saidane/The Texas Tribune)

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HOUSTON — Former President Donald Trump said at a campaign rally Thursday that Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton did not deserve to get impeached, a brief aside during remarks in which he pitched the upcoming presidential election as the most important for the future of a nation “ready to fail.”

“On day one of our new administration, we will end Biden’s nation-wrecking war on American energy,” Trump said to applause. “With the help of Texas oil and gas workers, we will restore American energy.”

Trump’s event took place at Trendsetter Engineering in northwest Houston and drew more than 100 people. The company designs equipment for offshore oil drilling.

Trump pledged to reverse energy policies implemented by President Joe Biden, restore a respect for the country that he claimed has been lost and close the borders to “stop the invasion” of migrants coming in from the south and north during a 90-minute speech.

He vowed to make America an energy powerhouse — generating new jobs and lowering the cost of energy — and railed against cars “that go very short distances that happen to be all electric.”

“If you don’t have energy, if you don’t have borders and if you don’t have fair elections, you don’t have a country,” he said. “We’re close to having no country.”

Trump also said he was glad to have helped Paxton, the state’s top civil lawyer who was acquitted in September on all articles of impeachment that alleged corruption and abuse of office. Paxton still faces a federal criminal investigation related to the same allegations. Trump had previously claimed credit for Paxton’s acquittal following the impeachment trial in the Texas Senate.

“By the way, you have a great attorney general,” Trump said to cheers. “He went through hell and I was very happy to have helped — I was very happy to have helped, but they shouldn’t have done that to him because he is one of the best in the country.”

The primary reason for Trump’s visit to Texas was fundraising. He had a fundraiser Wednesday night in Dallas hosted by telecom billionaire Kenny Troutt, and he was set to attend another one Thursday in Houston hosted by Houston Rockets and Landry’s restaurants owner Tilman Fertitta.

Trump is in a more dominant position than ever in the Texas primary, according to recent polls. A survey released Wednesday by the University of Houston and Texas Southern University found Trump leading the field with 58% of the vote. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis trailed far behind Trump with 14%.

Trump promised he would win Texas “in a landslide.” And he took multiple shots at DeSantis, saying his polling numbers are “like a wounded bird falling from the sky.”

The Texas Democratic Party sought to get ahead of Trump’s Houston visit with a virtual news conference Thursday morning. Party Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa said Trump’s claims of “America’s energy independence during his presidency are more lies.”

“Under his administration, net imports of crude oil and petroleum spiked,” Hinojosa said, “and though he claims credit for expanding American energy production and exports, the data shows that trend began long before he was in office.”

Outside of the field where Thursday’s rally occurred, stands selling "Trump 2024" merch like hats, scarves and flags filled side streets leading to the venue.

Inside, supporters of the former president — many wearing American flag and Trump 2024 regalia — said they were eager to hear Trump speak about a variety of issues that were important to them ahead of next year's election.

Among them was Justin Pardee, a 38-year-old from northwest Ohio who is in Texas until Friday for work setting up equipment to get a warehouse operational.

Attending his first Trump rally, Pardee said he wanted to hear the former president's views on drilling oil and witness firsthand what a rally is like compared to what he hears and sees about them.

"Jobs is a big thing. We're looking for our future of our kids. Up in Ohio — you know, anywhere — people are struggling to pay the bills," said Pardee, who added Trump has his vote for the Republican primary. "I like that he's putting everything out there. He's got more to lose than to gain becoming president."

Legal troubles have only escalated for Trump since he left office.

But all those problems are all "fake" to Michaela Villeneuve, another rallyer who said she had attended at least five Trump rallies all over Texas — including his March rally in Waco. Like others in attendance, Villanueve said Trump already had her vote for the Republican nomination but she was scared that Democrats would cheat in the general election.

"I love to hear him speak. He always says something different," Villeneuve said. She said she wants a president who will lower taxes and gas prices. "Just lower all the prices — and drill, baby, drill."

Trump briefly addressed the indictments against him, saying he “got more indictments than Al Capone.”

Before Trump spoke, the crowd heard from several elected officials backing his 2024 campaign. They included state Sen. Paul Bettencourt of Houston, Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller, Land Commissioner Dawn Buckingham and local U.S. Rep. Wesley Hunt of Houston.

Disclosure: Texas Southern University and University of Houston have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.