Former US president Donald Trump has continued to invoke retribution and violence over the weekend by using the first rally of his 2024 election campaign to rail against prosecutors weighing a criminal charge against him.
Following the rally, in Waco, Texas, he repeatedly insisted in a media interview that he was not upset by expected criminal charges that might arise from the Manhattan district attorney’s investigation into his role in paying hush money to adult film star Stormy Daniels.
Travelling back from his first rally as a 2024 presidential candidate, Mr Trump claimed during a recorded interview with four reporters aboard his Trump Force One aircraft that he was unafraid of the investigation even as he attacked the case and media reporting of it.
“I’m not frustrated by it. It’s a fake investigation. We did nothing wrong – I told you that,” the former president said.
The case centres on $130,000 that Mr Trump paid to Ms Daniels through attorney Michael Cohen in the final days of the 2016 campaign. Mr Trump later reimbursed Mr Cohen with $35,000 checks using his personal funds, which were recorded as legal expenses. Mr Cohen pleaded guilty in 2018 to federal crimes.
It remains unclear what charges the district attorney Alvin Bragg might seek against Mr Trump, though some members of his legal team believe the most likely scenario involves a base charge of falsifying business records coupled with potential tax fraud, because Mr Trump would not have paid taxes on the payments.
Mr Trump had opened the rally by playing a recording of a song, Justice for All, that features a choir of men imprisoned for their role in the January 6th insurrection singing the national anthem intercut with Mr Trump reciting the Pledge of Allegiance.
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Mr Trump stood solemnly on a podium with hand on heart while footage from the Capitol riot was shown on big screens and US flags billowed in the wind. “That song tells you a lot because it’s number one in every single category,” he told a crowd of thousands. “Number two was Taylor Swift, number three was Miley Cyrus.”
The choice of location for the rally was also striking: Waco, a city in Texas, exactly 30 years after a 51-day stand-off and deadly siege between law enforcement and the Branch Davidians that resulted in the deaths of more than 80 members of the religious cult and four federal agents.
Mr Trump used increasingly racist rhetoric as he launched ever more personal attacks against Alvin Bragg, the Manhattan district attorney, raising fears that supporters could try to lash out on his behalf. Mr Trump even shared an image of himself holding a baseball bat next to a picture of Mr Bragg.
The 45th president repeated his false claim that the 2020 presidential election was “rigged”, praised the rioters of January 6th and raged against the “weaponisation of law enforcement”, branding the prosecutors overseeing multiple investigations into his conduct as “absolute human scum”.
Wearing a dark jacket, white shirt and no tie, he said: “I got bad publicity and my poll numbers have gone through the roof – would you explain this to me ... It gets so much publicity that the case actually gets adjudicated in the press and people see it’s bullshit.”
Mr Trump claimed his personal life “has been turned upside down” because of “prosecutorial misconduct by radical left maniacs”, framing the various investigations as political attacks co-ordinated by Democrats in Washington.
He said: “You will be vindicated and proud. The thugs and criminals who are corrupting our justice system will be defeated, discredited and totally disgraced.”
He declared that his “enemies are desperate to stop us”, and “our opponents have done everything they can to crush our spirit and to break our will. But they failed. They’ve only made us stronger. And 2024 is the final battle, it’s going to be the big one. You put me back in the White House, their reign will be over and America will be a free nation once again.”
Mr Trump also launched his most sweeping attack yet on Ron DeSantis, the governor of Florida, seen as his strongest challenger for the Republican presidential nomination.
“He’s dropping like a rock and I wonder why,” Mr Trump said of Mr DeSantis’s recent slippage in opinion polls. He went on to repeat his claim that Mr DeSantis had begged for Mr Trump’s endorsement with “tears in his eyes” when he was running for governor. “I did rallies for Ron that were massive rallies.”
Mr Trump claimed that Florida had been successful for “decades” before Mr DeSantis took office and accused him of disloyalty. “But when a man, you know, you get him elected and there’s no quid pro quo ... He gets the nomination because of you, he wins the election because of you. Two years later, the fake news is up there saying, ‘Will you run against the president? Will you run?’ And he says, ‘I have no comment.’ I say, that’s not supposed to happen. ‘I have no comment.’ No. So I’m not a big fan.”
Mr Trump’s critics described the rally as anti-democratic and un-American. The Lincoln Project, an anti-Trump group, said in a statement: “Trump doubled down on his usual violent rhetoric and threats against his political enemies. After spending this week threatening the New York City district attorney Alvin Bragg and calling for ‘protests’, he talked about the ‘final battle’, ‘weaponisation’ of the office, and how he would be the ‘justice’ for his supporters.
“His choice of Waco on the anniversary of the Branch Davidian stand-off was to embrace the rightwing extremists who gave him the violent protests he craves. His followers got the message, loud and clear.”
The grand jury investigating Mr Trump’s alleged hush money payment is expected to meet again Monday in New York. – The Guardian