By JILL COLVIN
WACO, Texas (AP) — Staring down a possible indictment, a defiant Donald Trump is hoping to put on a show of force Saturday at the first rally of his 2024 presidential campaign, in a city made famous by deadly resistance against law enforcement.
The former president will gather with supporters at an airport in Waco, which will mark the 30th anniversary of the Waco massacre next month. In 1993, an attempted raid by law enforcement of a compound belonging to the Branch Davidians, a religious cult, resulted in a shootout that led to a 51-day siege, ending in a blaze that left dozens dead.
The rally comes as Trump has berated prosecutors, encouraged protests and raised the prospect of possible violence should he become the first former president in U.S. history to face criminal charges. Some of his recent rhetoric has echoed language he used before the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the U.S. Capitol by a mob of his supporters seeking to stop the transfer of power to Democrat Joe Biden, who won the presidential election.
“What kind of person can charge another person, in this case a former President of the United States … and leading candidate (by far!) for the Republican Party nomination, with a Crime, when it is known by all that NO Crime has been committed, & also known that potential death & destruction in such a false charge could be catastrophic for our Country?” Trump wrote on his social media site early Friday.
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 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.
“This is the ideal location to have as many supporters from across the state and in neighboring states attend this historic rally,” said Trump spokesperson Steven Cheung.
The city is part of McLennan County, which Trump won in 2020 by more than 23 percentage points. The small airport where the rally is being held is 17 miles from the Branch Davidian compound.
Hours before Trump’s appearance, hundreds of people began streaming onto the airport grounds and there was a long line of his supporters waiting to enter. Eugene Torres was unfazed by the prospect that Trump could be charged. “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.
The rally had already been in the works 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 Trump during the height of his 2016 campaign. Trump has denied the women’s claims.
But the timing will give Trump an opportunity to demonstrate his continued popularity with the GOP base and to portray himself as the victim of a politically motivated “witch hunt” as he campaigns for a second term in the White House.
The grand jury investigating the hush money payment is expected to meet again Monday in New York.
Trump has spent weeks now railing against the investigation. In a move that seemed designed to preempt a formal announcement and to galvanize his loyal base, 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, claiming, for instance, that the Manhattan district attorney’s office had plunged into “Total disarray,” though there was no evidence to suggest prosecutors were backing away from the case.
His efforts echoed a strategy he has used before, including during special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation.
Trump has also launched a series of increasingly personal attacks against Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, calling him “a danger to our Country” who “should be removed immediately,” and using increasingly racist and dehumanizing rhetoric.
On Thursday, he sought to tie Bragg, Manhattan’s first Black district attorney, to George Soros, a liberal billionaire donor who doesn’t know Bragg and hasn’t donated directly to him. “A SOROS BACKED ANIMAL,” Trump wrote of Bragg, adding, “THIS IS NO LEGAL SYSTEM, THIS IS THE GESTAPO.” He also shared an article that juxtaposed a picture of Bragg with a photo of Trump swinging a baseball bat in Bragg’s direction.
Trump has also repeatedly involved violence. Last Saturday, he called on his supporters to “PROTEST, TAKE OUR NATION BACK!” And on Thursday, he bemoaned, “OUR COUNTRY IS BEING DESTROYED, AS THEY TELL US TO BE PEACEFUL!”
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.
Bragg’s office sent an internal email to staff last Saturday saying, “We do not tolerate attempts to intimidate our office or threaten the rule of law in New York.” After the powder was discovered, Bragg sent another email to staffers telling them their safety was the top priority.
“We will continue to apply the law evenly and fairly, which is what each of you does every single day,” he wrote Friday.
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.
The Manhattan case focuses on a $130,000 payment that Trump’s longtime lawyer and fixer, Michael Cohen, made to porn actor Stormy Daniels as Trump was in the throes of the 2016 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 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.
Associated Press writers Paul Weber in Waco, Texas, Michael R. Sisak in New York, and Sagar Meghani in Washington contributed to this report.