WASHINGTON — In a made-for-television Independence Day production starring America’s military weaponry, President Donald Trump on Thursday used the Lincoln Memorial as the backdrop for an homage to the country’s armed forces and a call for unity that has been largely absent during his divisive presidency.
Flanked by Bradley armored vehicles and M1A2 tanks in front of the statue of Abraham Lincoln, Trump paid tribute to the five branches of the military as a chorus sang each service hymn and he cued the arrival of fighter jets, helicopters and other military aircraft as they roared overhead.
Speaking to a rain-soaked audience filled with troops decked out in “Make America Great Again” and “Trump 2020” paraphernalia, the president finally presided over the grand military display that he has wanted since witnessing the Bastille Day parade in Paris two years ago.
In a 45-minute speech delivered behind rain-streaked bulletproof glass, the president singled out a long list of Americans for their contributions to science, medicine, politics and the arts, and spun a history that praised everything from the civil rights movement to space exploration and praised everyone from the suffragists to Harriet Tubman to Chuck Yeager. But he spent most of his time recounting the progression of the armed forces, ending his remarks as the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” blared through huge speakers and the Blue Angels soared overhead.
“As long as we stay true to our cause — as long as we remember our great history — as long as we never, ever stop fighting for a better future — then there will be nothing that America cannot do,” Trump declared to chants of “USA, USA.” “God bless you, God bless the military, and God bless America. Happy Fourth of July.”
Even before he spoke, the president’s appearance on the National Mall drew fierce criticism from Democrats and some members of the military, who accused the president of using the military troops and equipment for his own political purposes.
“Tanks aren’t props. They are weapons of war,” said Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., a West Point graduate who served in the 82nd Airborne Division. Sen. Kamala Harris of California, a Democratic candidate for president, said of Trump: “I don’t think he understands, this is America’s birthday, not his birthday.”
But two weeks after formally announcing his reelection bid in Orlando, Florida, with a dark message of grievance and pointed attacks on his enemies, the president Thursday offered a different, more optimistic tone. He imposed himself on Washington’s usually nonpolitical Fourth of July celebration in what he called a “Salute to America” that avoided any of his usual attacks on the news media, Democrats or his intelligence agencies but placed himself at the center.
“We all share a truly extraordinary heritage. Together, we are part of one of the greatest stories ever told — the story of America,” he told a large crowd of people, many wearing the president’s red, trademark “Make America Great Again” baseball caps. “To this day, that spirit runs through the veins of every American patriot.”
Previous presidents have commandeered the Lincoln Memorial, but none ever did it the way Trump did Thursday, packing the audience with supporters and assuming the role of master of ceremonies.
In 2009, President Barack Obama held a star-studded inauguration party at the Lincoln Memorial two days before his swearing-in at the Capitol. Hundreds of thousands of people gathered on the Mall to hear a concert that included performances by Bruce Springsteen, U2, Beyoncé, Garth Brooks and more.
Eight years later, Trump first visited the Lincoln Memorial the night before his inauguration, delivering brief remarks and leading supporters lining the Reflecting Pool in chants of “make America great again.”
On Thursday, the president spoke not far from where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech to nearly a quarter-million people in 1963, hailing Lincoln’s decision to sign the Emancipation Proclamation as a “great beacon light of hope” to millions of people.
Thousands of people braved scorching, humid weather — and later heavy downpours — traveling to Washington to see the president and his promise of a “show of a lifetime.” The president’s festivities took place at the opposite end of the National Mall from Washington’s traditional observance of Independence Day, an annual concert on the west lawn of the Capitol by the National Symphony Orchestra and this year singer Carole King where the president’s red “MAGA” hats were hard to find.
The president’s supporters flocked to the event despite the oppressive heat and at-times heavy rain, delivering for Trump the kind of tableau he wanted for the cameras, filling almost all of the open spaces around the Reflecting Pool and the Lincoln Memorial.
But many in the crowd seemed puzzled by the speech, in which Trump made no mention of congressional Democrats or Robert Mueller, the special counsel in the Russia investigation, or any of his presidential rivals — his usual targets at his rallies. In that way, the White House made good on its promise, having said Trump would avoid giving an overtly political speech.
Instead, the president — who never served in the armed forces and was deferred in the draft during the Vietnam War because of bone spurs in his heels — took a sometimes rambling trip through America’s military history, recounting with reverence the early beginnings of the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines and Coast Guard.
Many military families who received invitations to a VIP section close to the president’s stage appeared to all but ignore the usual understanding that members of the armed forces should not engage in partisan political activity. Many wore Trump’s MAGA hats and openly campaigned for Trump’s reelection, chanting, “Four more years.”
Before Trump’s arrival, supporters of the president huddled in the VIP section under trees to escape a long downpour while the Marine Corps Band played a medley of patriotic songs, including “God Bless America.” Brief cheers of “USA! USA! USA!” came from the military crowd pressed along the fence line.
Daniel P. Cortez, 68, of Stafford, Virginia, who was wounded in Vietnam as a Marine infantryman, sat in the VIP section waiting for the president. Cortez, who works with a group that helps veterans deal with judicial issues, said he received an invitation from the White House on Monday.
“I’m not a Republican. I’m an independent,” said Cortez, the recipient of the Navy Commendation Medal for Valor, a Purple Heart and the Navy and Marine Corps Medal. “But when the White House calls, I’m not going to pass up a seat at an event like this. Patriots should go to any White House. I’m honored to go.”
Supporters of Trump were greeted by the large Trump baby balloon not far from the World War II Memorial. Code Pink, a liberal, anti-war group, organized the balloon as a way to mock the president. “It’s disgusting that Trump has hijacked our national holiday and turned it into a celebration of him,” said Medea Benjamin, a founder of Code Pink.