COLUMBUS, Ga. — Donald Trump’s legal defense did not start in a courtroom. It began on the banks of the Chattahoochee River.
After his historic federal indictment, the former president stepped onstage Saturday in front of more than 2,000 people packed into a convention center here to once again declare his innocence and deliver a grievance-laced takedown of what he said was a biased federal law enforcement apparatus.
"In the end, they're not coming after me. They're coming after you — and I'm just standing in their way," Trump said.
“The ridiculous and baseless indictment of me by the Biden administration’s weaponized Department of Injustice will go down as among the most horrific abuses of power in the history of our country," he said. "Many people have said that; Democrats have even said it. This vicious persecution is a travesty of justice."
His remarks at the Georgia Republican Party’s annual convention came one day after special counsel Jack Smith unsealed a 37-count federal indictment against Trump for allegedly crafting a scheme to keep in his possession sensitive material from his time in the White House, even though he knew many remained classified. The indictment alleged that Trump not only withheld classified documents but lied to federal agents and investigators about his involvement.
Those charges, which bring the prospect of an ex-president spending the rest of his life in a prison cell, hung over those gathered in the Columbus Convention and Trade Center to conduct their annual state party business. The event was relatively procedural, aside from Trump.
Trump repeatedly mocked the indictment. He called Smith "deranged" and said the Justice Department was a "sick nest of people that need to be cleaned out."
"They took one charge and made it 37," Trump said. "It’s a political hit job."
The crowd, some carrying signs that read “The FBI is the DNC for the KGB,” was friendly toward Trump, even in a state that Joe Biden won and whose Republican governor, Brian Kemp, beat a Trump-backed challenger during the 2022 midterms.
Trump is also under investigation in the state over whether he broke the law when he asked Georgia Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to “find” more than 11,000 votes he needed to win the state in 2020, in a phone call that was recorded.
The crowd booed Raffensperger when Trump mentioned his name.
Several in attendance wore stickers with a red line over the words “voting machines,” signaling they believed the 2020 election had been stolen.
Kemp and most of Georgia’s statewide elected officials were missing from the event. Raffensperger told Fox News Saturday afternoon their absence was by design. He said statewide office holders had not been invited.
Republican Lt. Gov. Burt Jones was there — and having to frequently answer questions about why. (He joked that it was because people there liked him so much.)
Another person in attendance was far-right Trump ally Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., whom the former president brought onstage for brief remarks.
Trump also leaned in to many of his standard themes from his rallies — immigration, crime and even how the country needs him, and only him — to ward off World War III.
"I will prevent World War III. ... Without me, it will happen," he said. "And this won't be a conventional war with Army tanks going back and forth, shooting each other. This will be a nuclear war. This will be obliteration — perhaps obliteration of the entire world. I will prevent it. Nobody else can say that."
Some speakers did avoid Trump's indictment altogether, focusing their comments on more traditional Republican favorites like criticizing federal spending, Biden and the government's Covid response, but there were still plenty of fiery defenses of Trump, days ahead of his arraignment scheduled for Tuesday in Miami.
“If you want to get to President Trump, you’re going to have to go through me, and 75 million Americans just like me,” former Arizona gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake told Georgia Republicans Friday night. “And most of us are card-carrying members of the [National Rifle Association]. That’s not a threat, that’s a public service announcement.”
The script has flipped, at least for now, for most of Trump’s political foes within his own party. For conservatives across the country, the Trump indictment does not represent the delivery of justice but rather a weaponized Justice Department headed by President Joe Biden, who is using it take aim at his political opponents.
“The weaponization of federal law enforcement represents a mortal threat to a free society,” Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, Trump’s chief rival for the party's nomination, tweeted Friday. “We have for years witnessed an uneven application of the law depending upon political affiliation.
“Why so zealous in pursuing Trump yet so passive about Hillary and Hunter,” he asked.
Pro-DeSantis super PAC Never Back Down had people outside the arena handing out pamphlets focused on DeSantis’ record, the only presence the Florida governor had at an event packed with people wearing Trump merchandise and carrying signs supporting the former president.
Trump has taken criticism from a handful of Republicans since the indictment, most notably Chris Christie. The former New Jersey governor is framing his own presidential bid as a mission to take down Trump. He said the details of the Trump indictment were “devastating.”
But for the most part, Republicans have vocally backed Trump, or tried to walk the tightrope of expressing concern about what’s in the indictment but maintaining their belief that the Justice Department has been “weaponized.”
“It is unacceptable that sensitive information, which could undermine our national strategy, has been treated so carelessly by current and former members of the executive branch,” said Sen. Mike Rounds, R-S.D, who has been a Trump critic in the past. “I am concerned about the Department of Justice’s decision to pursue this case against the former president at a time when our current president has also admitted to the possession of documents while out of office.”
Former Vice President Mike Pence, who has had a falling-out with Trump since he refused to stop certification of the 2020 election results, said he was "deeply troubled to see this indictment move forward" and called it a "sad day for America" in remarks at the North Carolina Republican Convention Saturday.
Amid the firestorm, Trump’s campaign is pushing forward in anticipation of Trump getting a bump in the polls, as he did briefly in September after federal agents searched his Mar-a-Lago home as part of the classified documents investigation, and again in March when Trump was indicted in New York on allegations that he had falsified business records connected to hush money he paid to allegedly cover up affairs before the 2016 presidential election.
Hours before the start of the Georgia event, Trump’s campaign released a poll showing him leading DeSantis 44-21 in Iowa and declaring Trump the "clear front-runner" in the state seen as key for DeSantis if he wants to build early momentum to knock off Trump.
Trump also spoke at the North Carolina Republican Party’s annual convention on Saturday night, when he was endorsed by Rep. Richard Hudson, R-N.C., who is chair of the National Republican Congressional Committee. Trump now has the backing of the chairs of both the House and Senate campaign committees.
Trump also talked about his legal turmoil during his speech, saying that he sometimes tells people, "In a sick way, I sort of enjoy it.
"Because it exposes them," he said, adding, "Have you seen this? The polls are through the roof and the fundraising, small-dollar fundraising is setting records."