Donald Trump used his first election rally in Waco, Texas, to cast the 2024 presidential vote in apocalyptic terms, slam his leading Republican rival Ron DeSantis and rail against prosecutors pursuing him with criminal investigations he likened to a "Stalinist Russia horror show."
Speaking to several thousand of his diehard supporters, some flashing signs saying "WITCH HUNT", Trump spent much of his nearly two-hour speech attacking the multiple investigations that have put him in legal peril as politically motivated.
Without offering evidence, the leading candidate for the Republican Party nomination accused the administration of Democratic President Joe Biden of orchestrating his criminal prosecution to undermine his bid for the White House.
"The Biden regime's weaponization of law enforcement against their political opponents is something straight out of the Stalinist Russia horror show," Trump said. "From the beginning it's been one witch hunt and phony investigation after another."
Trump is being investigated by prosecutors in Manhattan for campaign finance violations stemming his alleged payment of hush money to an adult film actress ahead of the 2016 election.
A special counsel appointed by the Department of Justice is investigating allegations he hoarded top-secret documents and masterminded a plot seeking to overturn the 2020 election. A parallel effort by prosecutors in Georgia is also examining his 2020 actions.
Trump held his rally in Waco as the city marked 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.
A Trump campaign spokesperson said Waco was chosen for what the former president 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 doesn't just face legal peril. His effort to lock in the Republican nomination faces a potential challenge from DeSantis, the governor of Florida, amid signs that his own support is softening, at least in places like New Hampshire, an early primary battleground.
"I'm not a big fan," Trump said of DeSantis. "Florida has been tremendously successful for many years, long before this guy became governor."
The former president is seeking to turn the hush money case in New York to his advantage by raising money off it and using it to rally supporters. On Friday, he said the country faced potential "death & destruction" if he was charged with a crime.
Trump's escalating rhetoric has repelled at least some within his own party.
"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 and Trump did not repeat any such call on Saturday.
Trump did speak of "demonic forces" trying to demolish the country, which he said was at risk of falling into a "lawless abyss" unless he is voted back into the White House. Trump depicted the United States as a failed state whose economy was in freefall - a description at odds with the country's record-low unemployment rate.
Trump also found time to nurse old grievances and return to the extreme allegations and name-calling that were a hallmark of his presidency.
Several times Trump repeated the false claim that his election loss in 2020 was due to a systemic fraud orchestrated by the Democrats. He described some American officials and senior U.S. politicians - including Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell - as a bigger threat to America than China or Russia and claimed to be fighting Marxists and Communists.
"Either the Deep State destroys America or we destroy the Deep State," Trump said.
Speaking ahead of Trump's speech, Matt Schomburg, 45, said he believed the rally was a way to energize his supporters for the 2024 race.
"We are so divided as a country and Trump did so many good things for the economy, the border – we'd just love to have his leadership again," said Schomburg, who works in insurance and is from Houston.
While some pundits had expressed concerns about possible violence, the atmosphere was festive and there were no reports of trouble, although some rallygoers struggled with the heat. Medics were called in to assist one woman who passed out near the media pen.