WASHINGTON: President Donald Trump celebrated the story of America as “the greatest political journey in human history” in a Fourth of July commemoration before a soggy but cheering crowd of spectators, many of them invited, on the grounds of the Lincoln Memorial. Supporters welcomed his tribute to the US military while protesters assailed him for putting himself centre stage on a holiday devoted to unity.
As rain fell on him, Trump called on Americans to “stay true to our cause” during a programme that adhered to patriotic themes and hailed a mix of history’s heroes, from the armed forces, space, civil rights and other endeavours of American life.
Trump told reporters on Friday that at one point during his speech the rain knocked out his teleprompter.
“That’s not a good feeling,” Trump said as he departed the White House for New Jersey, adding, “I knew the speech very well so I was able to do it without a teleprompter.” In his speech, Trump avoided diversions into his agenda or reelection campaign. But in one exception, he vowed, “Very soon, we will plant the American flag on Mars,” actually a distant goal not likely to be achieved until late in the 2020s if even then.
A late afternoon downpour drenched the capital’s Independence Day crowds, and Trump’s speech unfolded in occasional rain. The warplanes and presidential aircraft he had summoned conducted their flyovers as planned, capped by the Navy Blue Angels aerobatics team.
By adding his own one-hour “Salute to America” production to capital festivities that typically draw hundreds of thousands of people anyway, Trump became the first president in nearly seven decades to address a crowd at the National Mall on the Fourth of July.
Protesters objecting to what they saw as his co-opting of the holiday inflated a roly-poly balloon depicting Trump as an angry, diaper-clad baby.
Trump set aside a historic piece of real estate a stretch of the Mall from the Lincoln Monument to the midpoint of the reflecting pool for a mix of invited military members, Republican and Trump campaign donors and other bigwigs. It’s where Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I have a dream” speech, Barack Obama and Trump held inaugural concerts and protesters swarmed into the water when supporters of Richard Nixon put on a July 4, 1970, celebration, with the president sending taped remarks from California.
Aides to the crowd-obsessed Trump fretted about the prospect of empty seats at his event, said a person familiar with the planning who was not authorised to be identified. Aides scrambled in recent days to distribute tickets and mobilise the Trump and Republican social media accounts to encourage participation for an event hastily arranged and surrounded with confusion.
Back at the White House, Trump tweeted an aerial photo showing an audience that filled both sides of the memorial’s reflecting pool and stretched to the Washington Monument.
“A great crowd of tremendous Patriots this evening, all the way back to the Washington Monument!” he said.
Many who filed into the sprawling VIP section said they got their free tickets from members of Congress or from friends or neighbours who couldn’t use theirs. Outside that zone, a diverse mix of visitors, locals, veterans, tour groups, immigrant families and more milled about, some drawn by Trump, some by curiosity, some by the holiday’s regular activities along the Mall.