WACO, United States, March 26, 2023 (BSS/AFP) - Donald Trump staged his first presidential campaign rally in Texas Saturday, brushing off his potential indictment as he railed against multiple criminal probes threatening his bid for the White House.
The Republican addressed several thousand supporters -- far fewer than the 15,000 he had expected -- in the city of Waco as he braced for possible charges over a hush-money payout just days before the 2016 election, to a porn star alleging a sexual encounter.
Maintaining the investigation was over "something that is not a crime, not a misdemeanor, not an affair," Trump told supporters how he had been the victim of "one witch hunt and phony investigation after another."
The former president has made a torrent of increasingly bellicose statements, claiming "misconduct" by prosecutors he refers to as "human scum" who are pursuing cases against him in New York, Washington and Atlanta.
The 76-year-old -- who was impeached for inciting an insurrection -- called last weekend for protests against Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, and claimed falsely that he was about to be arrested.
"This is really prosecutorial misconduct. That's what it's called. The innocence of people makes no difference whatsoever to these radical left maniacs," he told an enthusiastic crowd.
For loyal followers, the lines were likely familiar, with the appearance marking a thrilling opportunity finally to see the ex-president at a rally.
As Trump spoke in the background, Hungarian-American retiree Marianna Bodrogi told AFP the occasion marked "the first time I've seen Trump in person."
"I love him, he's our savior," the 69-year-old said.
- 'Feeling his spirit' -
Some of those arriving in Waco for the Trump rally came from other states, and said they were eager to see their candidate returned to the Oval Office, with many wearing MAGA caps or waving flags touting his campaign.
"We have huge power behind Donald Trump that has yet to be unleashed," said Kelly Heath, 49, who lives in Georgia. "You will be shocked."
Trump is believed to be the frontrunner to be the Republican nominee in the 2024 presidential election.
The chasing pack, led by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, was initially reticent in its criticism of the ex-reality TV star, but has recently begun criticizing his character and the constant whiff of scandal that surrounds him.
Physician Felicia Macik, a Waco resident in the crowd, told AFP that, "getting ready to move forward into the new election season, it's been just real inspiring."
The 54-year-old said that among the rally's joys were "just seeing him in person and feeling his spirit and making our presence known here."
At the end of the rally, the ex-president departed on his plane, which served as part of the background for his speech.
- 'Death & destruction' -
Trump is under federal investigation for his efforts to overturn his 2020 election defeat and inciting the deadly riot at the US Capitol that his supporters launched to halt the peaceful transfer of power to Joe Biden.
Commentators noted that he pointedly neglected to call for protesters to be peaceful this time around.
In the early hours of Friday, Trump issued a dark warning about the consequences of an indictment, predicting "potential death & destruction" that "could be catastrophic for our Country."
He suggested that Bragg, who is leading the hush money probe, was a "degenerate psychopath that truly hates the USA."
Trump's choice of Waco for his rally was laden with symbolism -- the city is marking the 30th anniversary of a deadly standoff between an anti-government cult and federal agents, and has become a touchstone for far-right fringe activists glorying in its history of government resistance.
Some Trump supporters trickled into the Waco Siege Memorial on Friday to commemorate the 80 or so people who died in the 1993 standoff at the compound of the Branch Davidian sect, which was besieged by federal agents.
Trump, however, made no mention of the episode Saturday evening.
His spokesman was quoted by US media as pointing to the choice of the central Texas city for its ease of access to others across the state.