WACO, Texas (AP) — Facing a potential indictment, Donald Trump took a defiant stance at a rally Saturday in Waco, disparaging the prosecutors investigating him and predicting his vindication as he rallied supporters in a city made famous by deadly resistance against law enforcement.
With a hand over his heart, Trump stood at attention when his rally opened with a song called "Justice for All" performed by a choir of people imprisoned for their roles in the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. Some footage from the insurrection was shown on big screens displayed at the rally site as the choir sang the national anthem and a recording played of Trump reciting the Pledge of Allegiance.
The extraordinary display opened Trump's first rally of his 2024 Republican presidential campaign. He then launched into a speech brimming with resentments and framed the probes, including a New York grand jury investigation, as political attacks on him and his followers.
"You will be vindicated and proud," Trump said "The thugs and criminals who are corrupting our justice system will be defeated, discredited and totally disgraced."
Trump's event at the airport grounds in Waco was part of a broader effort by the former president to use the potential indictment as a rallying cry for supporters to maintain his status as the GOP frontrunner in what is expected to be a crowded primary. It came one day after Trump raised the specter of violence should he become the first former president in U.S. history to face criminal charges.
Trump declared his innocence in the Manhattan investigation into a hush money payment made during the 2016 election to porn actor Stormy Daniels to keep her from going public about a sexual encounter she said she had with Trump years earlier. A grand jury hearing the case is expected to meet again on Monday.
Trump said the Manhattan district attorney was investigating him "for something that is not a crime, not a misdemeanor, not an affair."
Some of Trump's 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.
Trump declared Saturday that his "enemies are desperate to stop us" and that "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."
Trump could be indicted soon by a Manhattan grand jury investigating a $130,000 payment that Trump's longtime lawyer and fixer, Michael Cohen, made as Trump was in the throes of his 2016 presidential campaign.
Trump later reimbursed Cohen and his company logged the reimbursements as a legal expense. Cohen has already served time in prison after pleading guilty to campaign finance charges and lying to Congress, among other crimes.
Trump's eyebrow-raising choice of venue in Waco for his first rally came 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.
Trump did not make any direct references in his speech to Waco's history, telling the crowd of thousands that he told Patrick he wanted to hold his rally in a place with overwhelming support, not "one of those 50-50 areas," and said he told Patrick, "Let's go right into the heart of it."
At several points, Trump criticized Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is expected to run for president and is seen as his strongest potential challenger for the GOP nomination. Trump called his onetime ally disloyal and said he was "dropping like a rock."
Audience members were holding red and white signs handed out by the campaign that said "Witch Hunt," "Trump 2024" 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.
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 coast 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.
Trump has spent weeks now railing against the New York probe 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 also 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.
Price reported from New York. Associated Press writers Paul Weber in Waco, Texas, Michael R. Sisak in New York and Sagar Meghani in Washington contributed to this report.