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‘2024 is the final battle’: Trump launches presidential campaign in Waco

 A supporter of former President Donald Trump attends the Republican's presidential campaign kickoff at Waco Regional Airport on Saturday, March 25, 2023.
Sergio Martínez-Beltrán
A supporter of former President Donald Trump attends the Republican's presidential campaign kickoff at Waco Regional Airport on Saturday, March 25, 2023.

It’s official: Donald Trump’s 2024 presidential run has kicked off in earnest.

On Saturday, Trump hosted a rally in Waco that drew more than 15,000 of his supporters — while also drawing criticism for the decision to have the event in a city with a history of anti-government sentiment.

The former Republican president disembarked from his airplane at 5:52 p.m., shortly after a rendition of the song

"Hallelujah" filled a hangar at Waco Regional Airport where his waiting crowd gathered.

Once on stage, Trump talked about what he believes is at stake in the next presidential election.

“In 2024 is the final battle — that’s going to be the big one,” Trump said. “You put me back in the White House and their reign will be over.”

Throughout his speech, Trump blasted Democratic government officials and praised those convicted after riots on Jan. 6, 2021. Trump also spent significant time on his often-repeated conspiracy theories around his 2020 presidential election loss.

“When this election is over, I’ll be the president of the United States,” Trump said. “You will be vindicated and proud.”

Looming criminal charges

Saturday’s rally came days after Trump claimed on social media that he was going to be arrested for allegedly paying hush money to Stormy Daniels, an adult-film star, during the 2016 presidential campaign.

The arrest did not happen, but the probe from Manhattan’s district attorney’s office is ongoing. Trump has also stepped up his attacks on government officials in its wake.

The former president faces other investigations as well for alleged election interference in Georgia and his involvement leading to the Jan. 6, 2021 riot at the U.S. Capitol.

Trump told the crowd Saturday these latest investigations are part of “prosecutorial misconduct” used by his opposition.

“From the beginning it's been one witch hunt and phony investigation after another,” Trump said. “And because of it, our country never talks about greatness anymore.”

Trump’s supporters are also dismissing the accusations.

Nadia Salvino is a member the Front Row Joes, a group of Trump supporters, and told The Texas Newsroom she was not worried about Trump’s looming charges.

“Well to be honest, even if he were to get indicted, I really do believe it would be just in his favor for the election,” Salvino said, adding that she plans to back Trump regardless.

Many Republicans in Texas seem to think that way, too.

According to polling from the Texas Politics Project, Trump’s favorability ratings remain strong in the state.

In February 2023, the poll found that 49% of Republicans here found Trump “very favorable,” while 30% found him “somewhat favorable.”

Overall, Trump’s favorability rating among Texas Republicans is 79%.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ favorability, according to the poll, is at 75%, while Gov. Greg Abbott’s favorability is higher than both of them, at 85%. Neither DeSantis or Abbott have announced their own presidential run, although DeSantis’ name has been floated as a potential Republican candidate.

The crowd in Waco also seemed to dislike 2024 Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley, the former governor of South Carolina. Many seemed to like DeSantis, but not enough to support him in a potential race against Trump.

“I love DeSantis ,too,” said Carol Mullin, a resident from Shreveport, La., who drove to Waco with her husband for the rally. “But President Trump is the man who can handle the job.”

Mullin added, if someone else besides Trump were to win the GOP nomination, she hopes they don’t turn out to be a “RINO,” or a Republican in name only.

Waco as host city

The location of Saturday's event raised some eyebrows, with many claiming it sends a signal to Trump’s far-right supporters.

Waco is about 100 miles away from Austin and Dallas.

In 1993, the city was the site of a deadly siege between the federal government and the anti-government Branch Davidian religious cult that resulted in 86 deaths.

Many of Trump’s critics — and observers — have said choosing Waco is a symbol of resistance.

But Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick pushed back against the accusations, calling them “pure bulls- - -, fake news.”

“I picked Waco,” Patrick said, claiming Trump called him and asked him to choose “a great city.”

He later told reporters Waco — and its surrounding areas — had not hosted a rally recently, and said he didn’t know this year was the thirty anniversary of the siege.

When asked by The Texas Newsroom whether he worried about the message it could send to right-wing extremists, he said “nobody is even thinking about that.”

“That’s just a crazy, made-up story,” Patrick said.

Copyright 2023 KUT 90.5. To see more, visit KUT 90.5.

Sergio Martínez-Beltrán reports on Texas politics and government for The Texas Newsroom.