WACO — With mounting legal troubles and challengers within his own party, former President Donald Trump formally kicked off his third campaign for the White House on Saturday, telling thousands of supporters in Waco that he would win the presidency and return America to greatness.
“And 2024 is the final battle. That’s going to be the big one,” Trump said. “You put me back in the White House, their reign will be over and America will be a free nation again.”
Trump said he was proud to be in Texas, a state where he has been a dominant figure in politics not only through his presidential campaigns, but his endorsement of candidates up and down Lone Star ballots. He’s made Texas a second home, building a grassroots and campaign donor network that’s as strong as in any state.
“From Waco to El Paso, from Houston to Dallas, and from the Red River to the Rio Grande, the people of Texas live and breathe the fierce spirit of independence,” Trump said.
Saturday’s Waco event proved he’s still a major attraction, as law-enforcement officials said more than 18,500 people jammed into a regional airport’s event space to hear the former president. Residents stood in line for several hours and traffic was backed up on streets near the airport.
“It’s great to be back in this wonderful state with thousands of die-hard patriots,” Trump said, adding that he wanted to visit supporters in a deep Republican area.
Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who served as state chairman of Trump’s previous presidential campaigns, told The Dallas Morning News during the rally that the former president would win the GOP nomination for president — and carry Texas.
“Nobody can beat Donald Trump in the Republican primary,” Patrick said.
Patrick later joined Trump with several Texas leaders and members of Congress. On Saturday, Trump announced that he has the backing of 11 Texas members of Congress, including GOP Reps. Beth Van Duyne of Irving, Michael Burgess of Pilot Point, Pat Fallon of Sherman, Roger Williams of Austin, and Pete Sessions, who represents the Waco area. He also was endorsed Saturday by Patrick, Attorney General Ken Paxton, Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller and Land Commissioner Dawn Buckingham.
Trump’s Waco rally comes as he’s facing a possible indictment by New York prosecutors related to 2016 hush-money payments made to adult-film star Stormy Daniels. Trump had predicted that he would be arrested Tuesday. That didn’t happen, though the Manhattan grand jury could hand down an indictment in the coming days.
The former president has a host of other legal problems, including an investigation in Georgia related to allegations that he improperly strong-armed election officials, a special prosecutor’s probe into possible mishandling of classified documents, and potential obstruction of justice and his role in the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol riots.
Trump has sought to use the New York case for his political advantage, claiming that Democrats and the prosecutors they control are out to get him.
Much of his sprawling speech, which lasted more than 90 minutes, was about how he was being unfairly targeted by prosecutors.
“From the beginning it’s been one witch hunt and phony investigation after another,” Trump said, adding that “when they come after me, they come after you.”
He said that his rivals “don’t want to talk about greatness for our country.”
“All they want to do is investigate and they are being investigated,” he said, adding “like we had a rigged election, we have a rigged system.”
He added: “Justice will only be done when we’ve thrown this repulsive political class out of office.”
Most Republicans, including Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, have decried the Manhattan probe as improper and steeped in politics. Last week DeSantis, Trump’s potential rival for the GOP nomination, criticized the investigation, while seemingly taking a shot at Trump’s alleged relationship with Daniels.
During the rally, Trump unloaded on DeSantis, saying his record isn’t good on crime and fighting the coronavirus pandemic.
“Based on polls, he’s not doing good with anything,” Trump said.
Last year, DeSantis was overwhelmingly reelected, and he won in Democratic strongholds like Miami-Dade County.
Trump appeared miffed that DeSantis is poised to challenge him in the primary, telling the crowd that when he endorsed him, DeSantis’ 2018 candidacy for governor took off like a rocket.
“I’m a loyalist,” Trump said as he claimed DeSantis came to him in tears and asked for his endorsement.
“I’m not a big fan,” Trump said.
DeSantis appears to be Trump’s biggest threat, though former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, also a former United Nations ambassador, is already in the race.
It’s not surprising that Trump chose Texas for what his aides say was the first rally of his 2024 campaign.
He’s enjoyed tremendous financial campaign support in Texas, a state that gave him more money than any other, according to campaign-finance records from 2016 and 2020. But many national GOP donors, including some Texans who raised and gave money to Trump, are preparing to ditch him for DeSantis. And big-name Dallas donors are taking a wait-and-see approach on whether to reup with Trump.
DeSantis, who has not officially launched a presidential campaign, was in Texas earlier this month to headline Republican banquets in Dallas and Houston.
Before his speech, Trump showcased a series of political backers, including Patrick.
“It all starts in the Lone Star State, where everything else does,” Patrick said, before doing an unflattering imitation of President Joe Biden. “In Texas, we stand with you, Donald Trump.”
He then praised Trump, saying that “no one accomplished more in four years than Donald Trump in the history of the presidency.”
Patrick entered the stage as the song “How Far to Waco” played and said Trump’s visit to Waco had nothing to do with the 30th anniversary of the Branch Davidian siege.
“That is pure bulls---, that is fake news,” Patrick said. “I picked Waco.”
Several Republican members of Congress attended the rally and pledged support to Trump, who they say is still the leader of the GOP.
U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., attacked Rep. Tony Gonzales, R-San Antonio, for not doing enough to secure the border before warning that the GOP should not abandon Trump or his policies.
“This is a Donald Trump party,” he said. “I’m a Donald Trump Republican.”
Georgia Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene said Trump was the best defense against Biden and his policies.
“There is only one true leader of the Republican Party and his name is Donald Trump,” Greene said.
In his speech, Trump promised to fight against open borders, out-of-control crime and bad economic policies.
Trump promised to be tough on illegal immigration, saying he would put more border security officers in place and stage one of the largest deportation programs in history.
He said he would end the war in Ukraine through a settlement in “24 hours.”
“I will prevent World War III,” he said. “I will end the inflation nightmare and build the greatest economy in the history of the world,” he added.
He said he would make America energy independent, promising the production of more Texas oil. And he said he would fight for school choice and push to have parents elect school principals.
He also said he wanted term limits for members of Congress.
Trump had harsh things to say about Biden, at one point calling him cognitively impaired.
“Either the deep state destroys America or we destroy the deep state,” he said.