WACO, Texas (AP) — 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.
“You will be vindicated and proud and the thugs and criminals who are corrupting our justice system will be defeated, discredited and totally disgraced," the Republican former president said. “That's what's happening.”
In an extraordinary display, Trump opened his rally by playing a song, “Justice for All,” that features a choir of men imprisoned for their roles in the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the U.S. Capitol singing the national anthem and a recording of Trump reciting the Pledge of Allegiance.
His rally Saturday at the airport grounds in Waco comes as Trump has berated prosecutors, 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 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.
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 that 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.
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 was 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 Trump’s arrival that he was the one who had suggested Waco as the venue. Any suggestion Trump had picked the city because of the anniversary was "fake news. I picked Waco!” he told the crowd.
Audience members were holding red and white signs handed out by the campaign that said “WITCH HUNT” and “I stand with Trump.”
Hours before Trump arrived, hundreds of his supporters began streaming into the airport past vendors selling merchandise including Trump flags, bumper stickers and action figures. There were no signs of counterprotesters near the long line of Trump supporters waiting to get inside.
Among them was Eugene Torres, 41, who said he was unfazed by the prospect that Trump could be indicted.
“It’s just another political attack on him to keep him from running and winning this race again,” said Torres, who is from the Texas coastal city of Corpus Christi.
Alan Kregel, 56, traveled with his wife from Dallas to see Trump in person for the first time. While he voted for Trump in 2016 and 2020, he said he felt the former president's "methods and vocabulary" often detracted from his policies. But now, two years out of office, he said he is more supportive of Trump than he was before.
“He’s an innocent man, just persecuted," said Kregel, arguing an indictment would help Trump win in 2024.
The rally had 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 Trump during the height of his 2016 campaign. Trump has denied the women's claims.
The grand jury investigating the hush money payment is expected to meet again Monday in New York.
Trump has spent weeks railing against the investigation and in a post on his social media site on Friday warned of “potential death & destruction in such a false charge" 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, 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.
Trump has 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 Bragg's offices, authorities said. Officials later determined the substance wasn't dangerous.
Even before the threatening letter was sent to Bragg's office, Democrats warned that 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,” House Democratic leader Hakeem Jeffries of New York said.
In addition to the Manhattan case, 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, as well as his efforts on Jan. 6.