Facing a potential indictment, the former president devoted much of his speech in Waco, Texas, to criticizing the justice system, though his attacks were less personal and caustic than in recent days.
WACO, Texas — Former President Donald J. Trump spent much of his first major political rally of the 2024 campaign portraying his expected indictment by a New York grand jury as a result of what he claimed was a Democratic conspiracy to persecute him, arguing wildly that the United States was turning into a “banana republic.”
As a crowd in Waco, Texas, waved red-and-white signs with the words “Witch Hunt” behind him, Mr. Trump devoted long stretches of his speech to his own legal jeopardy rather than his vision for a second term, casting himself as a victim of “weaponization” of the justice system.
“The abuses of power that we’re currently witnessing at all levels of government will go down as among the most shameful, corrupt and depraved chapters in all of American history,” he said.
The speech underscored how Mr. Trump tends to frame the nation’s broader political stakes heavily around whatever issues personally affect him the most. Last year, he sought to make his lies about fraud in his 2020 election defeat the most pressing issue of the midterms. On Saturday, he called the “weaponization of our justice system” the “central issue of our time.”
Lamenting all the investigations he has faced in the last eight years that have — to date — not resulted in charges, Mr. Trump claimed that his legal predicament “probably makes me the most innocent man in the history of our country.”
Mr. Trump tried, as he has before, to link his personal grievances to those of the crowd. “They’re not coming after me, they’re coming after you,” he said.
From the stage, Mr. Trump notably did not attack the Manhattan district attorney, Alvin L. Bragg, in the kind of caustic terms that he had used on social media in recent days. This past week, he had called Mr. Bragg, who is Black, an “animal” and accused him of racism for pursuing a case based on hush-money payments to the porn star Stormy Daniels shortly before the 2016 election.
Mr. Trump also refrained from echoing his ominous post that “potential death and destruction” might result if he were charged.
He did attack one of Mr. Bragg’s senior counsels by name, noting that he came to the office from the Justice Department and describing the move, without evidence, as part of a national conspiracy. “They couldn’t get it done in Washington, so they said, ‘Let’s use local offices,’” Mr. Trump said.
Pushing back on an investigation led by Mr. Trump’s allies in Congress, Mr. Bragg said in a statement on Saturday evening, “We evaluate cases in our jurisdiction based on the facts, the law and the evidence.”
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In a different investigation related to the handling of classified material, a federal appeals court ruled this past week that a lawyer representing Mr. Trump must answer a grand jury’s questions and provide documents to prosecutors. Mr. Trump’s team has tried to stop the lawyer, M. Evan Corcoran, from turning over documents.
Mr. Trump obliquely referred to the case, complaining that lawyers were once treated differently because of attorney-client privilege. “Now they get thrown in with everybody else,” he said.
Mr. Trump reserved some fire for his leading rival in the polls for the 2024 Republican nomination, Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, who has not announced a campaign yet. “He’s dropping like a rock,” Mr. Trump said, pointing to his increased edge over Mr. DeSantis in recent surveys.
He also argued that the greatest threat to the United States was not China or Russia but top American politicians, among them President Biden, Senator Mitch McConnell, the minority leader, and former Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who Mr. Trump said were “poisoning” the nation.
In many ways, the event was a familiar festival of Mr. Trump’s grievances and a showcase for his enduring showmanship. His plane — “Trump Force One,” an announcer called it — buzzed the crowd of thousands with a flyover before landing.
The rally featured one new twist: the playing of “Justice for All,” a song featuring the J6 Prison Choir, which is made up of men who were imprisoned for their part in the Capitol riot on Jan. 6, 2021.
The song, which topped some iTunes download charts, is part of a broader attempt by Mr. Trump and his allies to reframe the riot and the effort to overturn the election as patriotic. The track features the men singing “The Star-Spangled Banner” while Mr. Trump recites the Pledge of Allegiance.
The timing of a potential Trump indictment remains unknown. The Manhattan grand jury that is hearing the case is expected to reconvene on Monday.
Michael C. Bender reported from Waco, Texas, and Shane Goldmacher from New York.