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WACO, Texas — Former President Donald Trump vowed to destroy the “deep state” during a campaign rally in this city Saturday, which is in the midst of the 30th anniversary of the federal siege of anti-government cult leader David Koresh’s compound.
“Either the deep state destroys America or we destroy the deep state,” Trump said of the stakes of his bid for a return to the Oval Office.
At the first major rally of his campaign, Trump spoke to thousands of boisterous supporters on the tarmac of a regional airport. Before his remarks, his red, white and blue jet circled the crowd before landing and pulling up behind his stage.
He referred to the administration of his successor, Joe Biden, as the “Biden regime,” accused Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg of "prosecutorial misconduct" in investigating him and said "the Supreme Court didn’t have the courage to right the wrong" of his 2020 defeat.
“When this election is over, I will be the president of the United States,” Trump declared. “You will be vindicated and proud, and the thugs and criminals who are corrupting our justice system will be defeated, discredited and totally disgraced.”
"I am your warrior. I am your justice. And I took a lot of heat for this one, but I only mean it in the proper way — for those who have been wronged and betrayed … I am your retribution," he added.
But Trump also took direct aim at his leading rival for the GOP nomination, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who has not yet announced whether he will run.
Trump bristled at DeSantis flirting with a run — even though he said he helped him win the governorship in 2018. The former president ripped DeSantis for his handling of the Covid pandemic and for past positions favoring cuts to Medicare and Social Security. He also said that the Florida governor’s narrative of revitalizing the state is deceiving.
“Florida has been tremendously successful for many years, long before this guy became governor,” Trump said. “Florida has been successful for decades.”
In comments to reporters on his plane after the rally, Trump further tore into DeSantis, saying, "He's got no personality. That tends to be bad for a politician."
He added that if he hadn't helped him become governor he'd be "probably working at a cigar store or a law firm."
DeSantis' spokesman did not immediately return a request for comment Saturday night after the rally.
Along with the physical backdrop of this small city on the Brazos River, within a three-hour drive of Dallas, Houston, San Antonio and Austin, Trump is surrounded by the prospect of indictments in Manhattan, Atlanta and Washington, D.C., over questions about the hush money payment to a porn star, his efforts to overturn the 2020 election and the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.
Trump walked onstage with the "Justice for All" video playing — a choir of men incarcerated for their role in the Jan. 6 riot singing the national anthem, interposed with Trump reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. It included images of the insurrection as well.
Trump has been railing against the government officials investigating him, with increasingly dark warnings about the "death and destruction" that could ensue should he be indicted.
But much as it's impossible to ignore the obvious spectacle of an anti-establishment candidate stoking thousands of his supporters at the site of a showdown between federal agents and anti-government conspiracy theorists, there are more traditional political reasons why Trump picked Waco as the launch point for a new round of his trademark rallies.
Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick said Saturday that he had suggested Waco when Trump called to seek his advice more than two weeks ago.
“I didn’t even know it was the 30th anniversary to be candid with you,” Patrick told a small group of reporters.
As he seeks the GOP presidential nomination for the third time in a row, Trump and his team well understand the importance of Texas in delivering delegates to the Republican National Convention. The state is second only to California in the number of delegates available, and it will matter more to the final count than the first four early states — Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina — combined.
"It’s guaranteed to be a crowd for him and it’s part of I think the success they can have in going to red states," said one former Trump campaign aide. "It is intimidating. It’s a show of force. Here’s 10, 15,000, whatever, people in a room and nobody else can do that.”
It also fits his basic pattern of picking sites that are outside major cities but accessible to them.
"President Trump is holding his first campaign rally in Waco in the Super Tuesday state of Texas because it is centrally located and close to all four of Texas' biggest metropolitan areas," Trump campaign spokesman Steven Cheung said. "This is the ideal location to have as many supporters from across the state and in neighboring states attend this historic rally" as can make it.
Trump's aides dismiss the possibility that holding a Waco rally during the 30th anniversary of the siege might show sympathy to anti-government voters.
"That sounds like stuff that people in New York or D.C. who have never even been to Texas would say," said one Trump aide.
In addition to Patrick, Trump announced his Texas leadership team for the state, which included 12 of the 25 Republican House members from Texas.
He was also joined by Reps. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., and Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., both of whom warmed up one his larger crowds since he lost the presidency.
Gaetz said from the stage, and later while he posed for photos with the crowd, that DeSantis and Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, should endorse Trump.
But Gaetz sidestepped a question about whether DeSantis could hurt his future ambitions if he runs against Trump.
"I'm a lawmaker," he said, "not a pundit."
This article was originally published on NBCNews.com