Waco (United States) (AFP) - Donald Trump stages his first presidential campaign rally Saturday at the site of a deadly 1993 standoff between an anti-government cult and federal agents in Texas, as he rails against multiple criminal probes threatening his bid for the White House.
Waco -- which is marking the 30th anniversary of the siege -- has become a touchstone for far-right activists glorying in its history of resistance against perceived government overreach.
"BIG CROWD IN TEXAS.See you soon!!!" Trump said on his Truth Social platform.
The rally comes amid a torrent of increasingly bellicose statements by the former president claiming a "witch hunt" by prosecutors he refers to as "human scum" who are pursuing cases against him in New York, Washington and Atlanta.
The Republican leader is expected to address at least 15,000 supporters as he braces for possible charges over a hush money payout to a porn star alleging a sexual encounter just days before the 2016 election.
The 76-year-old -- who was impeached for inciting an insurrection -- called last weekend for protests against Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, and claimed falsely that he was about to be arrested.
Some of those arriving in Waco for the Trump rally came from other states, and said they were eager to see their candidate returned to the Oval Office, with many wearing MAGA caps or waving flags touting his campaign.
"We have huge power behind Donald Trump that has yet to be unleashed," said Kelly Heath, 49, who lives in Georgia."You will be shocked."
Trump supporters trickled into the Waco Siege Memorial on Friday to commemorate the 80 or so people who died in the 1993 standoff at the compound of the Branch Davidian sect, which was besieged by federal agents.
"Waco is actually the epicenter of the patriot movement, of the movement to help America get back to its grassroots...to empower the citizens to have constitutional rights," said Peter Christian, the pastor's assistant at the memorial.
The Houston Chronicle published an op-ed Thursday accusing Trump of hosting his rally during the 30th anniversary as a "blaring air horn" for the extremists among his followers.
"It's a ploy to remind his cult of the infamous Waco siege of 1993, where an anti-government cult battled the FBI," the former president's estranged niece Mary Trump said on Twitter.
"Scores of people died.He wants the same violent chaos to rescue him from justice."
The psychologist and author announced an effort to limit attendance at her uncle's rally, urging her 1.6 million Twitter followers to book out the venue to ensure it would be largely empty "when the traitor takes the stage."
The Trump campaign didn't immediately respond to AFP's request for the rationale behind choosing Waco at such a sensitive time.But his spokesman was quoted by US media pointing to the ease of access afforded by Waco's central location.
Trump is believed to be the frontrunner to be the Republican nominee in the 2024 presidential election.
The chasing pack, led by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, was initially reticent in its criticism of the ex-reality TV star, but has recently begun criticizing his character and the constant whiff of scandal that surrounds him.
'Death & destruction'
Trump is under federal investigation for his efforts to overturn his 2020 election defeat and inciting the deadly riot at the US Capitol that his supporters launched to halt the peaceful transfer of power to Joe Biden.
Commentators noted that he pointedly neglected to call for protesters to be peaceful this time around.
In the early hours of Friday, Trump issued a dark warning about the consequences of an indictment, predicting "potential death & destruction" that "could be catastrophic for our Country."
He suggested that Bragg, who is leading the hush money probe, was a "degenerate psychopath that truly hates the USA."
On Thursday, Trump invoked an anti-Semitic conspiracy theory popular among Republicans as he called Bragg a "Soros-backed animal" -- suggesting falsely that Jewish financier George Soros had contributed to Bragg's election.
Waco City Manager Bradley Ford told a news conference the city had first received an inquiry about hosting the rally just two weeks ago -- sparking frantic logistical and security planning.
"We're expecting thousands," McLennan County Republican Party Chair Brad Holland added, according to the Waco Tribune-Herald.