The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump’s Texas trip illustrates his upsides and downsides for Republicans and their midterm hopes

Former president Donald Trump speaks at the Save America Rally in Conroe, Tex., on Jan. 29. (Michael Stravato for The Washington Post)
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CONROE, Tex. — Former president Donald Trump on Saturday night delivered the exact message some Republicans have been eager to hear: President Biden and the Democratic Party are incompetent, and Republicans need to turn out to vote in the midterm elections to take back majorities in Congress.

But that was only a slice of Trump’s pitch during his campaign rally 40 miles north of Houston.

The former president also dangled pardons for Jan. 6 rioters and urged his throngs of supporters to descend on New York, Washington or Atlanta for street protests if he is convicted of crimes in ongoing investigations, intimations of support for violence that within hours prompted questions to other Republicans about where they stood. As he spoke approvingly of the violent effort to overthrow the 2020 election, Trump also spent most of his speech complaining, falsely, that the election was stolen from him, a line of argument that Republicans have publicly urged him to drop.

Trump may be out of office, and not yet an official candidate for president in 2024, but he still represents a conundrum for his party. The former president retains an unchallenged grip over the base of the party. In most states, separation from Trump’s desires and policies is a sure path to defeat in a Republican primary and risks lower GOP turnout in a general election.

Trump adviser Peter Navarro published a book, and in it he unveiled the plan to keep Trump in office. (Video: Monica Rodman, Sarah Hashemi/The Washington Post)

But Trump’s continued effort to downplay the events of Jan. 6 while stoking agitation for future violence risks alienating the independent and moderate voters Republicans desperately need and think they are set to gain in November.

Trump’s suggestion of protests related to investigations into him represented his fiercest attempt yet to rally public opinion on the probes to his side.

“If these radical, vicious, racist prosecutors do anything wrong or illegal, I hope we are going to have in this country the biggest protest we have ever had in Washington, D.C., in New York, in Atlanta and elsewhere because our country and our elections are corrupt,” he said, ticking off cities in which his business or presidential behavior is under investigation.

The three prosecutors investigating Trump — New York Attorney General Letitia James, Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg and Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis — are Black.

For Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R), who is facing a primary challenge from the right on March 1, the challenge was on full display here. In a less than six-minute speech before the former president took the stage, Abbott said Trump’s name more than two dozen times. And still, he was greeted with scattered boos and chants of “RINO” — Republican in name only — as some voters expressed their view that he has not sufficiently implemented Trump’s agenda, particularly on immigration.

Calen Wall, a volunteer for one of Abbott’s Republican challengers, Don Huffines, was among those who booed Abbott, faulting him for not taking stronger action on the border.

“Abbott is finally being primaried by a true conservative,” said Wall, 40, of Arlington, Tex. “It’s an election year, so Abbott is doing everything Huffines has been saying he would do.”

On Sunday morning, just hours after Trump raised the prospect of pardoning those charged in the Jan. 6 insurrection, other Republican candidates were faced with the fallout of his remarks. New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu, who disappointed Republicans by eschewing a Senate campaign to run for reelection but who is believed to have White House aspirations, said pardons for the Capitol rioters should not be considered.

“Look, the folks that were part of the riots and, frankly, the assault on the U.S. Capitol have to be held accountable,” he said Sunday morning on CNN. “There’s a rule of law. I don’t care whether you were part of the burning — burning cities in antifa in 2020, you were storming the Capitol in 2021. Everybody needs to be held fairly accountable … That’s part of leadership.”

Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), speaking on CBS, called Trump’s pardon remarks “inappropriate.”

“I don’t want to send any signal that it was okay to defile our Capitol,” he said. “I want to deter people who did that on Jan. 6. … I hope they go to jail and get the book thrown at them because they deserve it.”

At his rallies in the past, Trump has not always delivered the enthusiastic endorsement of Republican candidates that many in his party desire. He will mention candidates who have his “complete and total” support, but he often spends most of his time airing grievances and riling up his base.

On Saturday night, he gave lengthy shout-outs to the tribe of Republican officials who joined him at the rally and laid out the party’s midterm argument. He denounced Biden’s handling of foreign policy from Afghanistan to Russia to China. He questioned the president’s mental acuity, challenging him to take a cognitive test. He blamed Democrats for inflation and attacked vaccine and mask mandates. And on immigration, one of the most salient issues for Republicans in Texas, Trump said that “Biden’s complete abdication of duty is getting untold numbers of Americans killed.”

He also bragged about his handling of foreign policy matters, his work on the border and his administration’s efforts to create coronavirus vaccines.

But for as much time as Trump spent critiquing Biden, he spent more on personal grievances. He delivered a detailed critique of the New York investigation into his finances, suggesting Hillary Clinton’s allies were behind the effort. He called those investigating him “racist” and “mentally sick.”

In New York, the attorney general and Manhattan district attorney are investigating the Trump Organization’s finances. In Washington, a House select committee is investigating the Jan. 6 insurrection, with a focus on Trump’s role in encouraging the assault. And in Fulton County, Ga., the district attorney investigating Trump’s efforts to overturn the election was just granted her request to impanel a special grand jury.

“In reality, they’re not after me, they’re after you, and I just happen to be the person in the way,” Trump said of the investigations into him.

Trump’s words were immediately injected into the Republican bloodstream. At a rally in Mason, Ohio, for U.S. Senate candidate J.D. Vance on Sunday, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) asked the crowd if they had heard what Trump had said about the Jan. 6 defendants.

“He told them he’s going to make sure they’re treated right, and he wants to pardon them,” Greene said, to a round of applause. “People should not be treated like political prisoners when they have not even had a day in court.”

Vance denounced the treatment of the defendants but did not comment on the pardon idea. Some of the estimated 200 people at the rally agreed with Trump and Greene, saying that the Jan. 6 defendants had been treated horribly.

Asked about Trump’s comments, Dave Carney, a top political adviser to Abbott, said Trump is an unquestionable asset for Republicans including Abbott. He cited the former president’s popularity in Texas.

“Overall it was an excellent event for everyone involved,” he said. “Folks should worry about their own campaigns and let Trump be Trump. I don’t know why smart people think they can dictate to him. He has been successful. He wiped out 17 other folks. He crushed Hillary Clinton, and sometimes smart people spend too much time thinking about what he should say. Most people agreed with the president on the vast majority of things. Nobody agrees with someone 100 percent of the time.”

But Rick Wilson, a co-founder of the anti-Trump Lincoln Project, said most Americans are not interested in re-litigating the 2020 election or downplaying the violence on Jan. 6. While those talking points may be “good for clicks and raising money,” he said they are “bad for the Republican Party.”

“If you want to rev up the turnout in the midterms, you need to have your base jacked up. It’s a real conundrum for McConnell and McCarthy. You want the enthusiasm but not the poison,” he said, referring to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.).

But for those who flocked to the Montgomery County Fairgrounds to wait hours for Trump, the speech hit all the right notes.

“Tonight was fabulous,” said Cathie Pina, a 59-year-old nurse from Willis, Tex. “To be around people that are like-minded, that are patriots, that love our country.”

Pina, who attended her first Trump rally and brought along her 18-year-old daughter, praised the former president for wanting to restore “Judeo-Christian beliefs.” She slammed Biden as “corrupt” and “demented,” arguing it was “elder abuse to put that man in the spotlight.”

Dawn Rolen, a flight attendant from Waxahachie, Tex., called Trump “my president” and lavished praise on him.

“I’m a Republican, but it’s not about the left and the right anymore,” said Rolen, 54. “It’s about good and evil. Trump is good, and the liberals, I don’t know what the hell happened to them. They are out of their mind.”

David Weigel in Mason, Ohio, contributed to this report.