COLUMBUS — A defiant Donald Trump delivered a slashing defense against his federal indictment before a friendly Georgia GOP convention on Saturday in his first public appearance since prosecutors unveiled charges that pose an urgent legal threat to his comeback bid.

The former president used his roughly 90-minute speech to more than 2,000 delegates to frame himself as a victim of “vicious persecution” from politically motivated prosecutors who were agents of a Washington system that would stop at nothing to block his return to power.

“Witch hunt, witch hunt. Scam. Hoax,” Trump said, alleging that the criminal probes amount to “election interference” that would inevitably backfire on President Joe Biden and his supporters. Trump’s campaign, by contrast, was an epic “final battle” against corrupt powers in Washington.

“In the end, they’re not coming after me, they’re coming after you,” Trump told the delegates, many of whom were loyalists who fought for seats to the convention at county and district meetings. “And I’m just standing in their way. Here I am, just standing in their way.”

He could hardly have picked a friendlier venue for his first trip to Georgia since launching another bid for president. An overwhelmingly supportive crowd wore shirts that declared “Trump won,” hats promising a 2024 “revenge tour,” and jackets emblazoned with his image.

As Trump repeated false claims of rampant voting fraud and phony conspiracy theories about a “rigged” 2020 election in Georgia, his enthusiastic supporters roared in approval.

And the audience egged him on as he labeled Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis a “lunatic Marxist” for her probe into his attempt to overturn his defeat, and dubbed special counsel Jack Smith a “deranged” bureaucrat.

Trump didn’t directly attack Gov. Brian Kemp, who boycotted the event and is a favorite target of the former president. He did, however, draw a chorus of boos when he mentioned Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, who famously refused the former president’s demand to “find” enough votes to overcome his defeat.

Credit: NATRICE MILLER

Credit: NATRICE MILLER

Though most of Trump’s remarks involved gloomy warnings of impending financial and cultural ruin, he attempted a dash of humor to dismiss the ongoing criminal probes targeting his conduct, telling the crowd that “every time I fly over a blue state, we get a subpoena.”

“The only good thing about it is it’s driven my poll numbers way up,” said Trump, who later showed the audience screen shots of recent positive surveys.

The stop came one day after prosecutors unsealed a 49-page indictment that charged Trump with mishandling classified defense documents and then obstructing the government’s effort to retrieve them. It’s the first time in U.S. history an ex-president faces federal charges.

As he has with other criminal inquiries in Atlanta, New York and Washington, Trump insisted he did nothing wrong and accused federal and state law enforcement officials of a “political hit job” because they’re threatened by his comeback bid.

The appearance was part of Trump’s strategy to harness anger over the indictment to energize his supporters. Still, some Republicans also acknowledge the serious nature of the charges and fear that the ongoing probes could irreparably damage him if he wins the GOP nod.

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

“I’m worried that there will be more indictments,” said Martha Zoller, a GOP delegate and conservative commentator.

Trump tackled other issues beyond the indictment and election. But the federal charges loomed over everything.

In an interview on his plane after the campaign stop, Trump told Politico he would continue his campaign for president even if he was convicted on the federal charges lodged against him this week.

“I’ll never leave,” Trump told the outlet. “Look, if I would have left, I would have left prior to the original race in 2016. That was a rough one. In theory that was not doable.”

‘Horrific’

Even so, Trump remains the Republican frontrunner in Georgia and around the nation. But the former president is nonetheless encountering a vastly different political landscape in Georgia than he did during his last visit to the state.

When Trump held a campaign rally in Georgia in March 2022, he promised thousands of loyalists who journeyed to a muddy racetrack that his plan to overhaul state politics in his image was only just beginning.

He still harbored hope of ousting Kemp from office and replacing him with former U.S. Sen. David Perdue, who stressed his loyalty to Trump and put forward a disproven fantasy that the 2020 election was “absolutely stolen.”

Trump still sought political payback against Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger for refusing his demand to “find” enough votes. He still dreamed of shepherding former football star Herschel Walker win a U.S. Senate seat held by Democratic incumbent Raphael Warnock.

And the threat of criminal charges in Georgia for his effort to reverse his 2020 defeat still seemed far off.

Now that plan is in tatters. Kemp and other GOP incumbents demolished their Trump-backed challengers. Walker’s campaign, beset by controversies and unforced errors, collapsed in a runoff that solidified Democratic control of the Senate.

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Fulton County prosecutors could unveil criminal charges as early as August, on top of the charges he faces in New York and the federal indictment that was unsealed this past week.

And though Trump got a warm embrace from the delegates, who greeted him with a sustained standing ovation, many of the state’s most prominent Republicans are openly courting his rivals.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis had a surprisingly warm reception from party leaders when he last visited Georgia a few weeks ago. U.S. Rep. Rich McCormick recently became the state’s highest-ranking Republican to formally back a Trump rival when he endorsed DeSantis.

“We need a warrior who will do whatever it takes to champion conservative values and safeguard the next generation,” said McCormick, who represents a deeply conservative district north of Atlanta.

Former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, too, has developed key support in Georgia despite her middling poll numbers, landing some of the state’s most prominent donors and the backing of state Rep. Deborah Silcox, who is leading a pro-Haley initiative.

And, in a significant strategic shift, Kemp has ended his hands-off approach to the former president. After long avoiding openly criticizing Trump, the governor delivered his first direct attack against the former president a few days before the convention.

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Raffensperger, too, has adopted a less restrained approach to Trump. He told Fox News on Saturday the GOP needs “principled” leaders who can build broad-based coalitions, referring to the clear victories that he and Kemp scored in last year’s midterm.

“That’s how you win,” he told the network. “And that’s how Republicans win not only in Georgia, but nationwide.”

A poll released by Kemp’s political network this week points to Trump’s challenges in Georgia. It showed that a generic Republican had a roughly 10-point edge over Biden in the state, but Trump was neck-and-neck with the president.

It reinforced the urgent warnings from Kemp and his allies, who say that Trump’s obsessive “sour grapes” over his 2020 defeat will doom the party’s chances in must-win Georgia.

Trump, however, senses a new opening to mobilize his supporters to fight what he calls one of the most “horrific abuses of power in the history of our country.”

“Either the Communists win and destroy America,” he said of his political opponents, “or we destroy the Communists.”