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Trump supporters, including Branch Davidian leader, undeterred by looming legal woes


Trump supporters, including Branch Davidian leader, undeterred by looming legal woes

Mar 25, 2023 | 9:00 am ET
By Robert Downen William Melhado
Trump supporters at Waco rally undeterred by potential indictment
Former President Donald Trump speaks Saturday at a campaign rally in Waco, days after he said he was to be arrested by New York authorities as part of an ongoing investigation. (Leila Saidane/The Texas Tribune)

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WACO — Former President Donald Trump’s supporters, including the leader of the infamous Branch Davidian sect, say they’re undeterred by his myriad and looming legal issues.

If anything, the troubles make them like Trump more.

[Trump vows retribution at Waco rally: “I am your warrior, I am your justice”]

That much was clear from the reaction to Saturday’s rally in Waco, during which Trump extolled himself as the last thing standing between his followers and the “demonic” forces he claims have taken over the country. Speaking to throngs of fans waving “witch hunt” signs, he decried the legal investigations he faces as political theater and vowed retribution on supporters’ behalf.

The speech came as Trump continues to warn about potential violence by his supporters if he is arrested.

Browsing MAGA-themed magnets outside the rally’s entrance, Steven Paul, a commercial painter from Irvine, said indicting Trump would be an attempt to distract from what he said is corruption within the Biden administration.

Supporters of former President Donald Trump at a campaign rally in Waco on March 25, 2023.
Supporters of former President Donald Trump at a campaign rally in Waco on Saturday. Credit: Leila Saidane/The Texas Tribune

Like others on Saturday, Paul said that he didn’t take Trump’s warnings of violence literally — but did not rule out that others did. Echoing Trump’s speech, he and others framed themselves as members of an oppressed and targeted class.

“When does protesting with a loud voice become enough?” Paul said. “It doesn’t seem to get us anywhere.”

Others at the rally said Trump’s legal issues were nothing compared to other problems, including high living costs and economic issues that they blamed on Biden. “I couldn’t care less,” said a 62-year-old Waco resident who declined to give his name. “We need to make America great again.”

[As Donald Trump mounts his 2024 presidential bid, his support among Texas officials is waning]

Saturday’s rally came days after Trump claimed he was to be arrested on Tuesday by New York City authorities as part of an ongoing investigation into alleged hush payments to former porn star Stormy Daniels. Though the arrest did not happen, the former president has continued to stoke fears of violence, saying Friday there could be “potential death and destruction” if he’s taken into custody.

Trump faces a litany of other legal woes, including a rape lawsuit that is headed to trial in April; a Georgia probe into alleged interference in the 2020 presidential election; and two separate Justice Department queries into confidential documents found in his Mar-a-Lago estate and his role in the Jan. 6, 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol.

Little of it was of real concern to his supporters, who said an arrest would only make them adore Trump more — and feed their belief that he is the leader of their supposedly persecuted movement.

Trump’s claims of an impending arrest have also been a fundraising boon: He reportedly raised more than $1.5 million in the three days after claiming he’d be taken into custody, and his most ardent supporters have been particularly galvanized by his claims of legal persecution.

Even so, the vibes Saturday were noticeably low-energy, one longtime rallygoer said.

“There’s just not that much excitement today,” said Samantha Drake, who said she’s sold Trump merchandise at hundreds of events across the country. “The energy isn’t as high as I thought it would be.”

Saturday’s rally was Trump’s first in Texas since last year’s midterm elections, an underwhelming contest for Republicans who for months reveled in an impending “red wave.” Many now blame Trump and the candidates he promoted.

In Texas, thus far many GOP leaders have stayed quiet about Trump’s presidential bid, though some back his campaign and others have broken with him in favor of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, long rumored to be considering a run. Trump still has overall favorable ratings among Texas GOP voters, with 56% of Republicans surveyed saying the former president should run again, according to February polling from the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin.

Branch Davidians see support

Saturday afternoon’s rally began with speeches from Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller and U.S. Rep. Wesley Hunt of Houston, among others who decried challenges to Trump’s status as the party leader.

Patrick, who has served as Trump’s campaign chair in Texas, also took issue with suggestions that Trump was using the timing and location of Saturday’s rally to signal to anti-government groups that remain motivated by the deadly standoff at the nearby Branch Davidian compound that took place 30 years ago.

“And you see all these stories that the president chose this town because of an anniversary of an event that happened 30 years ago. Well, let me tell you that is pure bullshit, fake news — I picked Waco,” Patrick told the cheering crowd before Trump’s arrival.

Trump, Patrick said, telephoned several weeks ago and “said I’m coming to Texas, I want you to pick a great town.”

The siege was a galvanizing moment for modern-day white supremacist and anti-government movements and has been cited as inspiration for domestic terrorists — including Timothy McVeigh, who protested outside the Waco standoff and, four years to the day after it ended in a deadly blaze, bombed a federal building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people.

“The standoff in Waco was a key event in the rapid growth of the paramilitary movements in the 1990s,” said Lindsay Schubiner of the civil rights-focused Western States Center. “We're still seeing the effects of this today.”

Like other extremism experts, she feared the rally could be taken as an endorsement of anti-government and extremist claims about government overreach in Waco.

The leader of the Branch Davidians said he believed Trump was making a statement with his rally location.

“He is making a statement, I believe, by coming to these stomping grounds, where the government and the FBI laid siege on this community — just like they laid siege on Mar-a-Lago,” Charles J. Pace, the current leader of the Branch Davidian sect, said in a Saturday morning interview at the site of the standoff. “He’s making a statement. He’s not coming right out and saying, ‘I’m doing this because I want you to know what happened there was wrong.’ But he implies it."

Charles Pace, the pastor of The Branch, speaks to visitors inside the one-room chapel-turned-museum on the former Branch Davidian compound on March 25, 2023, in Waco.
Charles J. Pace, the pastor of The Branch, speaks to visitors on Saturday inside the one-room chapel-turned-museum on the former Branch Davidian compound in Waco. Credit: Leila Saidane/The Texas Tribune

Pace has been involved in the sect since the 1970s but was not at the compound during the 1993 standoff, and said he vehemently disagreed with former leader David Koresh’s alleged sexual relationships with married women and underage girls.

But like Koresh, Pace said, Trump was in the mold of Cyrus the Great, the Persian king who the Bible says was used by God despite his many sins and flaws. Wearing a “Texans for Trump” hat and echoing pillars of Q-Anon conspiracy theories, Pace claimed Trump rescued Jeffrey Epstein from jail so he could expose a global network of pedophiles, including the British monarchy and top American politicians. And he said he’s not concerned about a Trump arrest, which he believes is all part of Trump’s plan to expose the cabal of satanists and child molesters that he and others say run the world.

“He is a great president,” Pace said.

Back at the rally, Trump supporters similarly hailed him as an almost messianic figure, the greatest hope in what they believe is an existential war with evil incarnate.

“Donald Trump is my president, Jesus Christ is my leader,” proclaimed one woman after blowing a shofar, a Jewish religious instrument that Trump supporters have used to signify what they believe is their divinely inspired struggle.

Nearby, a young man lip-synched to rap songs written by a jailed Jan. 6 insurrectionist as recruitment fliers for the Texas-based extremist group Patriot Front blew down the gravel path toward the rally inside.

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