In his first public appearance since speculating a week ago that he would soon be arrested, Donald Trump lashed out against the multiple criminal inquiries that have bedevilled him since he left office in January 2021.
At an airfield rally in Waco, Texas, in front of thousands of supporters, the former president called the New York City investigation into hush-money payments to adult film star Stormy Daniels an expletive.
“The district attorney of New York under the auspices and direction of the ‘department of injustice’ in Washington, DC, is investigating me for something that is not a crime, not a misdemeanour, not an affair,” he said, before belittling Ms Daniels’ personal appearance.
Every piece of his personal, financial and business life, he said, has been “turned upside down and dissected” – but professed that he was “the most innocent man in the history of our country”.
For the past week, Mr Trump has been posting increasingly menacing statements about “death and destruction” if he were to be indicted on his social media website, but he avoided any such dire warnings during his speech. And earlier on a sunny afternoon in Waco, Texas, the gathering felt more like the carnival-atmosphere campaign rallies of Mr Trump’s 2016 presidential bid.
Thousands of the former president’s supporters wandered through Trump merchandise tents, where they bought t-shirts emblazoned with “God, guns and Trump” and “Trump won”. Then they packed onto the asphalt tarmac of the local airport hours before Mr Trump’s private jet was scheduled to land.
They waited in the heat as songs by Abba, Frank Sinatra and Bon Jovi blared on the loudspeakers and cheered as a litany of familiar Trump supporters took turns warming-up the crowd.
Rock star Ted Nugent played what was billed as a “fire-breathing” rendition of the US national anthem on his electric guitar, interrupted by an obscenity-laced diatribe that included attacks on the “jack-booted thugs” in the federal government who he said have been wrongfully imprisoning Trump supporters who stormed the US Capitol on 6 January, 2021.
Congressman Matt Gaetz of Florida and Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia also had their moment on the stage, lobbing pointed attacks on New York City District Attorney Alvin Bragg, who will decide in the days ahead whether to indict Mr Trump.
“This attack is an egregious weaponisation of our justice system designed to influence the 2024 presidential race,” Greene said. “This is nothing but a witch hunt against President Trump, and he is completely innocent.”
The crowd – which the Trump campaign estimated will reach 15,000 – offered some boos when Mr Bragg’s name was mentioned, but few seemed all that concerned by the New York investigation.
“I don’t listen to the negative stuff,” said Debbie Harvey of Midlothian, Texas, a town near Dallas. “I’m praying that he doesn’t get indicted. God still answers prayers.”
“There doesn’t seem to be much to it,” said Brian Novie, who lives in nearby Copperas Cove. “And now they seem to be struggling with whether prosecute at all.”
Novie and his friend Richard Tarner, who like Harvey were attending their first Trump rally, bought commemorative t-shirts that read “Trump in Texas: I was there – where were you?” They said that, even with what is likely to be a range of choices in the 2024 Republican primaries, they were sticking with Mr Trump.
“He’s proven he can get things done,” Tarner said, noting that Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, Mr Trump’s most formidable rival, had yet to demonstrate that he could perform on the national stage.
In the run-up to the Waco rally, a number of media outlets and Trump critics had questioned why the former president was holding his first mega-rally of the 2024 campaign in Waco, where 30 years earlier federal and state authorities engaged in an armed standoff with the Branch Davidian religious cult that ended with the death of 86 people.
It was an incident that helped fuel an anti-government movement in the US, as terms like Nugent’s “jack-booted thugs” were frequently used to describe federal law officers.
Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick told the crowd that such connections were an expletive and “fake news”.
“I picked Waco,” he said. “The president called me several weeks ago and said: ‘I’m coming to Texas. I want you to pick a great town.’
The president’s plane arrived early evening in the kind of dramatic airfield landing he made a signature of his campaigns in 2016 and 2020. The new “Trump Force One” circled the airfield as the song Danger Zone, made popular by the film Top Gun, blared on the loudspeakers. Meanwhile, a speed-artist painted a scowling portrait of the former president on the stage.
The work turned out to be an accurately foreshadowing of the mood the embattled former president brought to his appearance. While he would eventually tout his record and make promises about a bright future for America if he is elected, it was clear that his legal troubles – and possible impending arrest – were foremost in his mind.