A defiant and incendiary Donald Trump, facing a potential indictment, held the first rally of his 2024 presidential campaign on 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 January 6, 2021, insurrection at the US Capitol singing the national anthem and a recording of the former president reciting the Pledge of Allegiance.
Some footage from the insurrection was shown on screens.
“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 early in his speech.
“That’s what’s happening.”
Mr Trump’s rally at the airport grounds in Waco comes as he has berated prosecutors, encouraged protests and raised the prospect of possible violence should he become the first former president in US 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 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.”
His eyebrow-raising choice of venue in Waco comes amid the 30th anniversary of a 51-day stand-off and deadly siege between US 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.
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 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 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,” and said he told Mr Patrick, “Let’s go right into the heart of it.”
“But as far as the eye can see,” he immediately added, “the abuses of power that we’re currently witnessing at all levels of government will go down as among the most shameful, corrupt, depraved chapters in all of American history.”
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 but also decrying past probes, including the release of his tax returns by Democrats in the US House after a prolonged legal battle.
“It probably makes me the most innocent man in the history of our country.” Mr Trump said. “Friends of mine say that.”
The former president said he has had “bad publicity,” but his “poll numbers have gone through the roof”.
At several points, Mr Trump criticised Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who is expected to run for president and is seen as his strongest potential challenger for the GOP nomination. Mr Trump called his one-time ally disloyal and said he was “dropping like a rock”.
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 were no signs of counter protesters 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 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, from Texas.
Alan Kregel, 56, travelled 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, 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.
The rally had already been organised 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 hush money payments is expected to meet again on 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 warned of “potential death and destruction in such a false charge” if he is 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.
Trump has also repeatedly invoked violence, urging his supporters to protest, 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 was not 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,” House Democratic leader Hakeem Jeffries of New York said.
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, as well as his efforts on January 6.