COLUMBUS, Ga. — Donald Trump’s legal defense didn’t start in a courtroom. It started on the banks of the Chattahoochee River.
Following his historic federal indictment, the former president took the stage 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-based takedown of what he has branded a biased federal law enforcement apparatus.
“At the end of the day, they’re not going after me. They’re going after you — and I’m just standing in their way,” Trump said.
“The ridiculous and baseless indictment of me by the Biden Administration’s Armed Injustice Department will go down as some of the most horrific abuses of power in our nation’s history,” he said. “A lot of people have said that; The Democrats even said so. This vicious persecution is a travesty of justice.”
His remarks to the Georgia Republican Party’s annual conference came a day after Special Counsel Jack Smith unsealed a 37-count federal indictment against Trump for allegedly hatching a scheme to keep in his possession. sensitive documents from his time in the White House, 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.
The charges, which raise the prospect of an ex-president spending the rest of his life in a prison cell, hang over those who gathered at the Columbus Convention and Trade Center to conduct their annual business. The event was relatively procedural, aside from Trump.
Trump has repeatedly mocked the indictment. He called Smith “bothered” and said the Justice Department was a “sick nest of people who need to be cleaned up.”
“They took a charge and did 37,” Trump said. “It’s a work of political success.”
The crowd, some of whom carried signs reading “The FBI is the DNC of the KGB,” were friendly to Trump, even in a state that Joe Biden won and whose Republican Gov. Brian Kemp beat a Trump-backed challenger in of the 2022 midterm.
Trump is also under investigation in the state over whether he broke the law when he asked Republican Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to ‘find’ more than 11,000 votes including 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 people present wore stickers with a red line over the words “voting machines”, signaling that they believed the 2020 election had been stolen.
Kemp and most Georgia state officials were absent from the event. Raffensperger told Fox News on Saturday afternoon that their absence was intentional. He said statewide office holders were not invited.
Republican Lieutenant Governor Burt Jones was there — and frequently had to answer questions about why. (He joked that it was because the people there loved him so much.)
Also in attendance was Trump’s conservative ally, Rep. Marjorie Taylor, R-Ga., whom the former president brought to the stage for brief remarks.
Trump also delved into many of his standard themes from his rallies, about immigration, crime and even how the country needs him — and only him — to stave off World War III.
“I will prevent World War III. … Without me it will happen,” he said. “And it’s not going to be a conventional war with army tanks coming and going, shooting at each other. It’s going to be a nuclear war. It’s going to be the erasure – maybe the erasure of the whole world. I No one else can say this.”
Some speakers avoided Trump’s indictment altogether, focusing their comments on more traditional Republican favorites like criticism of federal spending, Biden and the government’s response to Covid, but there were still plenty of fiery defenses of Trump, a few days ahead of his scheduled arraignment Tuesday in Miami.
“If you want to get to President Trump, you’ll have to go through me, and 75 million Americans like me,” former Arizona gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake told Republicans in Georgia Friday night. . “And most of us are carded members of the [National Rifle Association]. It’s not a threat, it’s a public service announcement.
The scenario has flipped, at least for now, for most of Trump’s political enemies within his own party. To conservatives across the country, Trump’s indictment represents not the delivery of justice, but rather an armed Justice Department led by President Joe Biden, who is using it to target his political opponents.
“The militarization of federal law enforcement represents a deadly threat to a free society,” Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, Trump’s main rival, tweeted on Friday. “We have seen for years unequal application of the law based on political affiliation.”
“Why so zealous in prosecuting Trump and yet so passive about Hillary and Hunter?” he added.
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 received criticism from a handful of Republicans since the indictment, including Chris Christie. The former New Jersey governor frames his own run for president as a mission to take out Trump. He said the details of Trump’s indictment were “devastating”.
But for the most part, Republicans have backed Trump, or tried to walk a tightrope, expressing concern about the contents of the indictment, while maintaining their belief that the Justice Department has been “armed.” “.
“It is unacceptable that sensitive information, which could undermine our national strategy, has been treated with such carelessness by current and former members of the executive,” said Sen. Mike Rounds, RS.D, who served as a criticism of Trump in the past. . “I am concerned about the Justice Department’s decision to pursue this case against the former president at a time when our current president has also admitted to having documents while not in office.”
Former Vice President Mike Pence, who has fallen out with Trump since he refused to stop certification of the 2020 election results, said he was “deeply disturbed to see this indictment go from forward” and called it a “sad day for America”. in remarks at the North Carolina Republican Convention on Saturday.
Amid the firestorm, Trump’s campaign is advancing in anticipation of a rise in the polls, as he did briefly in September after federal agents searched his Mar-a-Lago home as part of of the classified documents investigation, and again in March when Trump was indicted in New York for falsifying business documents related to money he allegedly paid to conceal business before the 2016 presidential election.
Hours before the Georgia event began, Trump’s campaign released a poll showing him leading DeSantis 44-21 in Iowa and declaring Trump the “undisputed favorite” in the state seen as key to DeSantis if he wants to build early momentum to knock off Trump.
Trump was also scheduled to speak at the North Carolina Republican Party’s annual convention on Saturday night.
This article originally appeared on NBCNews.com