WASHINGTON - U.S. President Donald Trump delivered a Fourth of July speech on the National Mall that extolled the U.S. military and the American people and put himself at the center of the Independence Day celebration.
“We celebrate our history, our people, and the heroes who proudly defend our flag — the brave men and women of the United States military,” Trump said on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on Thursday, flanked by American flags. “We are part of one of the greatest stories ever told — the story of America.”
Trump recalled key developments in American history, including the country’s founding, exploration of the west, women’s suffrage and the civil rights movement.
Trump avoided overly political themes, calling the speech a “Salute to America,” though it came as a crowded field of Democrats is challenging him in the 2020 campaign. The event included military tanks, flyovers by military jets and Air Force One, and culminated with an extended fireworks display.
Thousands of spectators packed the Mall to watch, and the typically apolitical Independence Day festivities took on trappings of a political rally. A number of those in the audience wore Trump shirts and hats and vendors sold Trump election merchandise. Protesters displayed a statue of Trump sitting on a toilet sending a tweet from his phone.
Trump revamped the traditional celebration, which doesn’t usually feature a president delivering a speech on the Mall or the display of military might. The fireworks, which took place after the speech, generally last about 15 minutes but this year spanned 35 minutes after a donation by two pyrotechnic companies valued at $750,000.
In his roughly 45-minute speech, Trump described some of the most noteworthy inventors in American history and highlighted cultural innovations and advances in medicine. Trump pivoted from his discussion of history to say the nation is stronger than ever before as the crowd chanted “USA! USA!”
“Someday soon we will plant the American flag on Mars,” Trump said.
Trump praised “Americans of faith,” along with military service members and law enforcement officials. He thanked families whose relatives were killed during military duty.
While Trump’s speeches often include attacks on his political opponents, Thursday’s did not. The president instead highlighted themes that unite Americans.
“We are all made by the same almighty God,” he said.
‘Show of a lifetime’
Trump promised a “show of a lifetime,” but it didn’t go entirely the president’s way. Afternoon rains and forecasts of scattered thunderstorms may have kept spectators away and prompted flash flood alerts.
The anti-war group Code Pink brought the 20-foot balloon depicting Trump as a baby wearing a diaper. Windy conditions caused handlers to deflate it.
Trump reserved space for special guests — the Trump campaign, Republican National Committee and Defense Department were among those that received tickets. Among those present were Labor Secretary Alex Acosta and Interior Secretary David Bernhardt.
Federal law bars political fundraising in government buildings or rooms where officials perform their duties, but doesn’t restrict presidents from inviting deep-pocketed donors to the White House or official events.
Government officials provided no crowd estimates. Trump tweeted a photo of spectators on the Mall, saying: “A great crowd of tremendous Patriots this evening, all the way back to the Washington Monument!” At the start of his presidency, Trump took issue with media reports citing photos showing fewer people attended his inauguration than those of his predecessors.
Trump conceived the event after his plans for a military parade on Veterans Day were stymied by complaints from local officials about the cost. The president has been enamored of the idea of a Washington celebration with a military component since attending the 2017 Bastille Day parade in Paris, which included an aerial display, thousands of marching soldiers and hundreds of military vehicles.
‘Stroke his ego’
Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden said in a speech in Iowa Thursday that for Trump, the event was “designed more to stroke his ego than celebrate American ideals.”
The Trump administration deflected questions about the cost of the event as District of Columbia officials said they’re concerned they’d be left with large bills. The city has said it’s still owed about $7 million from costs associated with Trump’s inauguration, but the administration official said the District hasn’t asked for funds from upcoming federal budgets.
Some in the crowd said they’d come specifically to see Trump.
Trump supporter Kim Tarver, a secretary who had traveled from Clanton, Alabama, to celebrate Independence Day in the capital, arrived early and said she wouldn’t be deterred by rain.
“I’m only here once,” she said.
Others said they were ignoring the president.
“I’m trying to spread my patriotism by saying I am not going to let you stop me from celebrating my country,” said John Fink, 23, of New York.