WACO, Texas (Reuters) -Donald Trump used his first election rally in Waco, Texas, to rail against the prosecutors investigating him, employing dark and conspiratorial language to fire up his base ahead of next year’s Republican primary elections.
Trump told supporters gathered at Waco’s airport on Saturday that the investigations swirling around him were “something straight out of the Stalinist Russia horror show.”
“From the beginning it’s been one witch hunt and phony investigation after another,” he said.
The legal threats hanging over the former president were front of mind for some attendees, many of whom flashed signs saying “WITCH HUNT.”
Trump is being investigated by prosecutors in Manhattan for campaign finance violations stemming his alleged payment of hush money to an adult film actress ahead of the 2016 election. A special counsel appointed by the Department of Justice is investigating allegations he hoarded top-secret documents and masterminded a plot seeking to overturn the 2020 election.
Republican lawmaker Marjorie Taylor Greene, one of Trump’s most vocal supporters in Congress, told the crowd it was time to “take back” the Department of Justice.
“You have to understand: they are not just coming after President Trump, they are coming after you, and President Trump is just the only one standing in their way,” she said.
Trump’s rally is happening in Waco as the city marks the 30th anniversary of a raid by federal agents on the Branch Davidians religious sect there that resulted in 86 deaths, including four law-enforcement officers. Many right-wing extremists see the raid as a seminal moment of government overreach, and critics saw the rally’s timing as a nod to Trump’s far-right supporters.
In an email, a Trump campaign spokesperson said Waco was chosen for what the former president has billed as his first major rally of the 2024 presidential race because it is situated between several major population centers and has the infrastructure to host a large event.
Trump doesn’t just face legal peril. His effort to lock in the Republican nomination faces a potential challenge from Florida Governor Ron DeSantis amid signs that his own support is softening, at least in places like New Hampshire, an early primary battleground.
The former president is seeking to turn the hush money case in New York to his advantage by raising money off it and using it to rally supporters. On Friday, he issued an apocalyptic warning, saying the country faced potential “death & destruction” if he was charged with a crime.
Trump’s escalating rhetoric has repelled at least some within his own party.
“Trump is walking on a high wire without a net, telegraphing that he has nothing to lose and is willing to risk dangerous outcomes to rally support,” said Ron Bonjean, a Republican strategist in Washington.
Few supporters have heeded his calls to take to the streets to protest his possible indictment in the Manhattan case. Those calls will likely invite closer than normal scrutiny of how many people attend Saturday’s rally – which the city of Waco said was expected to draw 15,000 people.
It is also likely to draw closer than usual scrutiny of Trump’s speech, which is due to start at 5 p.m. CDT, and is expected to rail against the potential prosecutions.
Matt Schomburg, 45, said he believed the rally was important to energize his supporters for the 2024 race.
“We are so divided as a country and Trump did so many good things for the economy, the border – we’d just love to have his leadership again,” said Schomburg, who works in insurance and is from Houston.
Schomburg said he thought Trump was trying to send a message by holding the rally in Waco.
“I think the message is hey we are not going to be handcuffed by the people that are pulling the strings behind the curtain. We want transparency. We don’t want big government anymore.”
In an editorial, the Houston Chronicle said the decision to host the event in Waco during the anniversary of the Waco siege represented more than a dog-whistle message to far-right and conspiratorial Trump supporters.
“The more apt metaphor is the blaring air horn of a Mack 18-wheeler barreling down I-10,” the newspaper said, adding that Waco had become “a shrine for the Proud Boys, the Three Percenters, the Oath Keepers and other anti-government extremists and conspiracists.”
Timothy Naftali, a presidential historian at New York University, said he would be watching to see whether Trump explicitly references conspiracy theories related to the siege, similar to how he promoted lies about a stolen 2020 election in the run-up to his supporters’ assault on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.
“He still has the power to create more wreckage and his choice of venue allows him to do more damage if he wishes. We’ll see,” Naftali said.
Reporting by Nathan Layne; Editing by Ross Colvin, Howard Goller and Daniel Wallis