WACO, Texas — It was Donald Trump’s first formal rally of the 2024 campaign. But the former president spent the evening sticking with the usual hits, emphasizing personal grievances and going after his nearest targets: Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Manhattan district attorney who is poised to indict him.
Appearing before a crowd of cheering supporters, Trump offered up the type of political bravado and bulldog mentality that he is known for, mocking DeSantis, who is widely seen as his strongest rival for the Republican nomination, for not doing better in the polls.
“Man, he’s dropping like a rock,” Trump said of the Florida governor. “They keep saying ‘DeSanctus’ could do well with farmers. I don’t think so. Based on polls, he’s not doing well with anything.”
Trump went on to do a dramatic re-enactment of DeSantis pleading for his endorsement in the 2018 Florida governor’s race. The former president said that after he grudgingly backed DeSantis, the candidate “became like a rocket ship” and prevailed in the primary and general election — and argued that had he not backed him, DeSantis would have never won.
The audience seemed game to stand for hours under the central Texas sun and listen to Trump’s litany of complaints. They and the event itself offered a vivid illustration of the fault lines that have quickly opened up in the very early GOP primary: in which fealty to Trump appears to be one of the main litmus tests for those running.
Indeed, rallygoers here in Waco expressed disappointment that DeSantis had not gone further in his defense of Trump as he stares down a possible indictment from the Manhattan district attorney.
Louise Negry from Lometa, Tex., said DeSantis “might be a traitor.”
Her friend, Renee Alaniz, agreed, referencing the Florida governor’s implicit mocking of Trump for being involved in an alleged hush money payment to a porn star (which has been the central issue in his potential indictment).
“His statement about the possible Trump arrest was a little questionable — quite a bit questionable. His choice to be so lax about it and not support Trump in any way,” Alaniz said.
Chris Blunt, who wore a t-shirt with an image of the Trump NFT he purchased last year, called DeSantis a “Trump clone,” and said the governor should be “dropping the Covid stuff and moving past it.”
“Trump likes to attack the person and not their character, but DeSantis is attacking Trump’s character and credibility,” Blunt said. “He needs to stop playing games because Trump is going to trounce you.”
DeSantis was not the lone object of scorn in Waco on Saturday night. Trump also railed against Alvin Bragg, the Manhattan district attorney, who is investigating the $130,000 hush money payments to adult entertainer Stormy Daniels on Trump’s behalf. The jury in Manhattan had appeared to be wrapping up with the case and a decision on charges against Trump was widely expected to come last week. Now it does not appear any decision will come until at least early next week.
Trump framed the investigations into him and the “weaponization of our justice system” as “the central issue of our time.” And he claimed the “biggest threat” to the U.S. isn’t China or Russia but “high level politicians that work in the U.S. government like McConnell, Pelosi, Schumer and Biden.”
“You will be vindicated and proud the thugs and criminals who are corrupting our justice system will be defeated, discredited and totally disgraced,” Trump said.
Trump’s first 2024 presidential campaign rally came at a pivotal time. While Bragg closes in on a likely indictment — which would be a first for a sitting or former president — Trump is also facing legal scrutiny over his efforts to overturn the 2020 election as well as his handling of classified White House documents.
Trump, on Saturday, appeared to bet that he could turn the investigations into a political asset, casting himself once more as a victim of a federal government that was aligned against him.
“Our opponents have done everything they can to crush our spirit and to break our will. But they failed. They’ve only made us stronger,” he said.
The campaign and city of Waco had expected at least 15,000 people to attend Saturday’s rally. Wearing MAGA hats and Trump t-shirts, some waved official campaign signs saying “WITCH HUNT” and the entire crowd stood, hand to heart along with Trump, as a rendition of the “Star Spangled Banner” sung by the “J6 Choir” played, set to a video of protesters storming the U.S. Capitol.
Trump ticked through a list of campaign promises that included mandating term limits, keeping “men out of women’s sports” and ending “the invasion at the Southern border.” And he once again vowed, without articulating how, that he would end the war in Ukraine and prevent “World War 3.”
But the focus wasn’t primarily on the issues facing America, it was on the many issues facing him.
The Trump campaign rolled out its Texas leadership team and endorsements for 2024 that included Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton and twelve members of Congress, including Reps. Pete Sessions, the former NRCC chairman, and Roger Williams, chairman of the small business committee. Rep. Ronny Jackson — Trump's former White House physician turned U.S. congressman from Texas — helped Trump's campaign nail down endorsements and Trump personally called each, according to a campaign adviser.
Notably, Gov. Greg Abbott and Sen. Ted Cruz weren’t included on the list, although the adviser said they expect more endorsements and Abbott and Cruz have both mulled 2024 runs of their own.
Capitol Hill Trump allies like Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) and Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) warmed up the crowds with their own rally cries.
Greene told the crowd to stop letting people from “blue states” move into Texas, and — in what has been a major pivot for the GOP — told people to embrace ballot harvesting.
“We need to beat them at their own game and start harvesting ballots,” Greene said. “Except they’ll only come from legal registered voters who are U.S. citizens.”
Trump seemed pleased with Greene’s speech in particular, and on stage encouraged her to run for Senate.
Outside the venue, rallygoers wandered through a makeshift marketplace of Trump themed souvenirs that ranged from Trump and Melania Trump lifesize cutouts, MAGA bikinis and t-shirts with crude messages against President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris. One vendor said he was close to selling out a t-shirt that read, “I was there, where were you? God, Guns, Trump, in Waco, Texas.”
Meridith McGraw reported from Waco, Texas; Alex Isenstadt reported from Washington, D.C.