WACO — Crowds of true believers came to Waco on Saturday for former President Donald Trump’s first major rally of the 2024 campaign, motivated by Trump’s potential arrest and undeterred by the prospect.
Trump’s 5 p.m. rally at Waco Regional Airport comes days after he said he was to be arrested by New York authorities as part of an ongoing investigation into alleged hush payments to former porn star Stormy Daniels. Though Trump’s prediction of a Tuesday arrest did not occur, many who attended the rally said an indictment would galvanize support for the former president and called the investigation “fake news” or a political conspiracy to undermine Trump.
Browsing MAGA-themed magnets outside the rally’s entrance, Steven Paul, a commercial painter from Irvine, said a Trump indictment would serve as a distraction from corruption within the Biden administration. Paul cited reports from conservative media outlet Real America’s Voice, which claims the Chinese government paid Biden’s family millions of dollars.
If the former president is indicted, Paul said, expect Trump supporters to protest vigorously but peacefully, unlike Black Lives Matter protests of 2020, which Paul characterized as destructive and violent.
“When does protesting with a loud voice become enough?” Paul said. “It doesn’t seem to get us anywhere.”
Others downplayed Trump’s legal woes and warnings of carnage.
“I couldn’t care less. We need to make America great again,” said a 62-year-old Waco resident who declined to give his name. “And it’s probably like he says: Fake news.”
Trump’s rally was his first in Texas since last year’s midterm elections, an underwhelming contest for Republicans who for months reveled in an impending “red wave” that failed to materialize Since then, some have blamed the disappointing election results on Trump and some of the candidates he picked.
In Texas, thus far many GOP leaders have stayed quiet about Trump’s presidential bid, though some have broken with him in favor of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, long rumored to be considering a run. Trump still has overall favorable ratings among Texas GOP voters, with 56% of Republicans surveyed saying the former president should run again, according to February polling from the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin.
Saturday afternoon’s rally began with speeches from Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller and U.S. Rep. Wesley Hunt of Houston, among others who decried challenges to Trump’s status as the party leader.
Patrick, who has served as Trump’s campaign chair in Texas, also took issue with suggestions that Trump was using the timing and location of Saturday’s rally to signal anti-government groups that remain motivated by the deadly standoff at the nearby Branch Davidian compound that took place 30 years ago.
“And you see all these stories that the president chose this town because of an anniversary of an event that happened 30 years ago. Well, let me tell you that is pure bullshit, fake news — I picked Waco,” Patrick told the cheering crowd before Trump’s arrival.
Trump, Patrick said, telephoned several weeks ago “and said I’m coming to Texas, I want you to pick a great town.”
The siege was a galvanizing moment for modern-day white supremacist and anti-government movements and has been cited as inspiration for domestic terrorists – including Timothy McVeigh, who protested outside the Waco standoff and, four years to the day after it ended in a deadly blaze, bombed a federal building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people. Extremism experts have warned that Trump’s rally, combined with a supposed looming indictment, was intended to send a message that would animate anti-government movements.
Branch Davidians agreed.
“He is making a statement, I believe, by coming to these stomping grounds, where the government and the FBI laid siege on this community — just like they laid siege on Mar-a-Lago,” said Charles J. Pace, leader of the Branch Davidians. “He’s making a statement. He’s not coming right out and saying, ‘I’m doing this because I want you to know what happened there was wrong.’ But he implies it.”
Back at the rally, Samantha Drake, 34, said she’s attended hundreds of Trump rallies to sell merchandise to supporters. Saturday’s gathering, she said, felt relatively calm — particularly in light of Trump’s claims of an impending arrest, which Drake had expected to make the rally more raucous.
“There’s just not that much excitement today,” she said. “The energy isn’t as high as I thought it would be.”
Away from the rally site, Waco resident Rachel Garibay said she was excited by Trump’s visit, even if she wasn’t able to get tickets to see him.Watching a children’s baseball game on the turf field of Magnolia Market — a popular shopping complex made famous by Chip and Joanna Gaines, hosts of the television show Fixer Upper — Garibay said she believes Trump chose Waco for this first campaign rally because it’s a growing city that attracts a lot of tourists from around the state.
Visiting Waco from Houston, Ismael Perez didn’t know the former president would be speaking nearby. Though happy Trump is running again, Perez said his loyalty isn’t set in stone, with his vote going to either Trump or DeSantis.
Manuel Chairez, visiting from Dallas, also didn’t come to Waco to see Trump speak.
“I’m not a Trump fan, I just lean more toward his policies,” Chairez said, standing near a row of food trucks serving lemonade and tacos.
On the budding Trump-DeSantis rivalry, Chairez said he’d be happy with either as the Republican nominee, though he thinks DeSantis is favored given concerns about the former president’s potential indictment.
This article was written by ROBERT DOWNEN AND WILLIAM MELHADO of The Texas Tribune. The Texas Tribune is a nonpartisan, nonprofit media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them – about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues. This article originally appeared at: https://www.texastribune.org/2023/03/25/donald-trump-waco-rally-indictment/