By Nathan Layne
WACO, Texas (Reuters) -Die-hard fans of Donald Trump flocked to the ex-president’s election rally in Waco, Texas, on Saturday, brimming with defiance as their favored candidate faced overlapping threats of criminal indictment.
Several thousand Trump supporters lined up outside the Waco Regional Airport waiting to go through security and enter the event, with the first speaker scheduled for 2 p.m. CDT (1900 GMT). The crowd, many wearing Trump T-shirts and hats, broke into applause when Republican lawmaker Marjorie Taylor Greene, one of Trump’s most vocal supporters in Congress, walked into the venue.
Fifty-seven-year-old Laurie Hansen said Trump was “the best president ever.”
“He’s the only one who can bring our country back,” she said. “We are at a precipice. It’s time to put our foot down and say, ‘No more.'”
Like others at the rally, Hansen dismissed talk that Trump might be prosecuted over allegations he violated campaign finance laws for paying hush money to an adult film actress, or hoarded top-secret documents, or masterminded a plot seeking to overturn the 2020 election.
“They’re all political witch hunts,” said Hansen, a sales coordinator who drove three hours from Sherman, Texas. “We all know that.”
The rally is happening in Waco as the city marks the 30th anniversary of a raid by federal agents on the Branch Davidians religious sect there that resulted in 86 deaths, including four law-enforcement officers. Many right-wing extremists see the raid as a seminal moment of government overreach, and critics saw the rally’s timing as a nod to Trump’s far-right supporters.
In an email, a Trump campaign spokesperson said Waco was chosen for what the former president has billed as his first major rally of the 2024 presidential race because it is situated between several major population centers and has the infrastructure to host a large event.
Trump, who is seeking to solidify support for the Republican nomination in 2024, faces growing legal peril from a series of ongoing criminal investigations, including the hush money case, which is being weighed by prosecutors in Manhattan.
The former president has sought to paint the New York case as politically motivated, raised money off it and used it to rally supporters to his side. On Friday, he issued an apocalyptic warning, saying the country faced potential “death & destruction” if he was charged with a crime.
“Trump is walking on a high wire without a net, telegraphing that he has nothing to lose and is willing to risk dangerous outcomes to rally support,” said Ron Bonjean, a Republican strategist in Washington.
Few supporters have heeded his calls to take to the streets to protest his possible indictment in the Manhattan case. Those calls will likely invite closer than normal scrutiny of how many people attend Saturday’s rally, where Trump, who is due to start speaking at 5 p.m. CDT, is expected to rail against the potential prosecutions.
The city of Waco said it was expecting 15,000 people to attend the rally.
In an editorial, the Houston Chronicle said the decision to host the event in Waco during the anniversary of the Waco siege represented more than a dog-whistle message to far-right and conspiratorial Trump supporters.
“The more apt metaphor is the blaring air horn of a Mack 18-wheeler barreling down I-10,” the newspaper said, adding that Waco had become “a shrine for the Proud Boys, the Three Percenters, the Oath Keepers and other anti-government extremists and conspiracists.”
Timothy Naftali, a presidential historian at New York University, said he would be watching to see whether Trump explicitly references conspiracy theories related to the siege, similar to how he promoted lies about a stolen 2020 election in the run-up to his supporters’ assault on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.
“He still has the power to create more wreckage and his choice of venue allows him to do more damage if he wishes. We’ll see,” Naftali said.
In addition to prosecutors, Trump is likely to target Ron DeSantis for criticism. The Florida governor has yet to declare his candidacy for the Republican nomination but has drawn Trump’s ire nonetheless.
Trump rallies typically draw thousands of enthusiastic supporters keen to see him in person. Trump continued to hold rallies even after he left office, delivering his trademark rambling and inflammatory oratory that draws rapturous applause from rallygoers.
(Reporting by Nathan Layne; Editing by Ross Colvin, Howard Goller and Daniel Wallis)