A defiant and incendiary Donald Trump, facing a potential indictment, held the first rally of his 2024 presidential campaign Saturday in Waco, Texas, a city made famous by deadly resistance against law enforcement.
In an extraordinary display, Mr. Trump opened his rally by playing a song, “Justice for All,” that features a choir of men imprisoned for their role in the Jan. 6, 2021, deadly insurrection at the U.S. Capitol singing the national anthem, and a recording of Mr. Trump reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. Some footage from the insurrection was shown on screens.
Mr. Trump, in a speech brimming with resentments, defended the insurrectionists and berated prosecutors overseeing multiple investigations of the Republican former president. He framed the probes as political attacks on him and his followers.
“You will be vindicated and proud,” he said. “The thugs and criminals who are corrupting our justice system will be defeated, discredited, and totally disgraced.”
Mr. Trump’s rally Saturday at the airport grounds in Waco comes as he has encouraged protests and raised the prospect of possible violence should he become the first former president in U.S. history to face criminal charges.
Some of his recent rhetoric, including at the rally, has echoed language he used before the Capitol insurrection by a mob of his supporters seeking to stop the transfer of power to Democrat Joe Biden, who won the presidential election.
Mr. Trump declared Saturday his “enemies are desperate to stop us,” and “our opponents have done everything they can to crush our spirit and to break our will.”
He added, “But they failed. They’ve only made us stronger. And 2024 is the final battle; it’s going to be the big one. You put me back in the White House, their reign will be over and America will be a free nation once again.”
Waco as the venue choice
His eyebrow-raising choice of venue in Waco comes amid the 30th anniversary of a 51-day standoff and deadly siege between U.S. law enforcement and the Branch Davidians, which resulted in the deaths of more than 80 members of the religious cult and four federal agents and has become a touchstone for far-right extremists and militia groups.
Mr. Trump’s campaign insisted the location and timing of the event had nothing to do with the Waco siege or anniversary. A spokesperson said the site, 17 miles from the Branch Davidian compound, was chosen because it is conveniently situated near four of the state’s biggest metropolitan areas — Dallas/Fort Worth, Houston, Austin, and San Antonio — and has the infrastructure to handle a sizable crowd.
Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick said before Mr. Trump’s arrival that he was the one who had suggested Waco as the venue. Any suggestion Mr. Trump had picked the city because of the anniversary was “fake news. I picked Waco!” he told the crowd.
Mr. Trump did not make any direct references in his speech to Waco’s history, telling the crowd he told Mr. Patrick he wanted to hold his rally in a place with overwhelming support, not “one of those 50-50 areas.” He said he told Mr. Patrick, “Let’s go right into the heart of it.”
Audience members were holding red and white signs handed out by the campaign that said “WITCH HUNT” and “I stand with Trump.”
Mr. Trump repeatedly railed against the investigations on Saturday, declaring “prosecutorial misconduct” in the ongoing criminal investigations and also decrying past probes, including the release of his tax returns by Democrats in the U.S. House after a prolonged legal battle.
The former president said he’s had “bad publicity,” but his “poll numbers have gone through the roof.”
Long line of Trump supporters
Hours before Mr. Trump arrived, hundreds of his supporters began streaming into the airport past vendors selling merchandise including Trump flags, bumper stickers, and action figures. There was no sign of counterprotesters near the long line of Trump supporters waiting to get inside.
Among the supporters was Eugene Torres, who said he was unfazed by the prospect that Mr. Trump could be indicted.
“It’s just another political attack on him to keep him from running and winning this race again,” said Mr. Torres, who is from the Texas coast city of Corpus Christi.
Alan Kregel traveled with his wife from Dallas to see Mr. Trump in person for the first time. While he voted for Mr. Trump in 2016 and 2020, he said he felt the former president’s “methods and vocabulary” often detracted from his policies. But now, with Mr. Trump two years out of office, he said he is more supportive of Mr. Trump than he was before.
“He’s an innocent man, just persecuted,” said Mr. Kregel, arguing an indictment would help Mr. Trump win in 2024.
Legal cases against Trump
The rally had already been in the works before it became clear that a grand jury in New York was drawing closer to a possible indictment as it investigates hush money payments made to women who alleged sexual encounters with Mr. Trump during the height of his 2016 campaign. Mr. Trump has denied the women’s claims.
The grand jury investigating the issue is expected to meet again Monday in New York.
Mr. Trump has spent weeks now railing against the probe, and in a post on his social media site on Friday, he warned of “potential death & destruction” if he’s charged with a crime.
In a move that seemed designed to preempt a formal announcement, he claimed last Saturday that he would be arrested the following Tuesday. While that did not happen, Mr. Trump has used the days since to try to shape public perception – echoing a strategy he has used before, including during special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation.
Mr. Trump has also repeatedly invoked violence, urging his supporters to protest, and used increasingly racist and dehumanizing rhetoric as he has launched ever more personal attacks against Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg.
On Friday, a powdery substance was found with a threatening letter in a mailroom at Mr. Bragg’s offices, authorities said. Officials later determined the substance wasn’t dangerous.
Even before the threatening letter was sent to Mr. Bragg’s office, Democrats warned that Mr. Trump’s remarks had the potential to incite violence.
“The twice-impeached former president’s rhetoric is reckless, reprehensible, and irresponsible. It’s dangerous, and if he keeps it up he’s going to get someone killed,” said House Democratic leader Hakeem Jeffries of New York.
In addition to the Manhattan case, Mr. Trump is also facing an investigation in Georgia over his efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 election, as well as federal investigations into his handling of classified documents and possible obstruction, and his efforts on Jan. 6.
This story was reported by The Associated Press. AP writer Michelle L. Price reported from New York. AP writers Paul Weber in Waco, Texas; Michael R. Sisak in New York; and Sagar Meghani in Washington contributed to this report.