April 16, 2024

Donald Trump, the former US president, continued to invoke retribution and violence on Saturday when he used the first rally of his 2024 election campaign to rail against prosecutors weighing a criminal charge against him.

Efforts by Trump’s team to steer a more conventional, disciplined candidacy have wilted in recent days as the 76-year-old unleashed words and images that – even by his provocative standards – are unusually dehumanising, menacing and dangerous.

He opened the rally by playing a song, “Justice for All”, that features a choir of men imprisoned for their role in the January 6 insurrection singing the national anthem intercut with Trump reciting the Pledge of Allegiance.

Trump stood solemnly on a podium with hand on heart and 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 standoff 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.

It came with Trump facing the prospect of becoming the first president in US history to be indicted. A grand jury in New York investigating a hush money payment to the adult film star Stormy Daniels, who alleged a sexual encounter with Trump, a claim he denies.

Trump falsely predicted his own arrest on Tuesday last week and called for protests without adding that they should be peaceful. On his Truth Social platform he warned of “potential death & destruction” if he is eventually charged.

He also 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. Trump even shared an image of himself holding a baseball bat next to a picture of Bragg.

Hakeem Jeffries, the Democratic minority leader in the House of Representatives, said: “The twice-impeached former president’s rhetoric is reckless, reprehensible and irresponsible. It’s dangerous, and if he keeps it up he’s going to get someone killed.”

On Friday a powdery substance was found with a threatening letter in a mailroom at Bragg’s offices; officials later determined the substance was harmless.

Yet at Saturday’s rally at Waco airport, there was little sign of Trump heeding the warnings and cooling off. Behind him supporters held signs that said, “Witch hunt”, “I stand with Trump” and “Trump 2024”.

The 45th president repeated his false claim that the the 2020 presidential election was “rigged”, praised the rioters of January 6 and raged against the “weaponization 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.”

Trump claim that his personal life “has been turned upside down” because of “prosecutorial misconduct by radical left maniacs” and framed the various investigations as political attacks coordinated 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.”

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,” Trump said of DeSantis’s recent slippage in opinion polls. He went to repeat his claim that DeSantis had begged for Trump’s endorsement with “tears in his eyes” when he was running for governor. “I did rallies for Ron that were massive rallies.”

Trump claimed that Florida had been successful for “decades” before 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.”

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’, ‘weaponization’ of the office, and how he would be the ‘justice’ for his supporters.

“His choice of Waco on the anniversary of the Branch Davidian standoff 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 Trump’s alleged hush money payment is expected to meet again Monday in New York.