President Trump hailed America’s’ “extraordinary heritage” and the Founding Fathers who paved the way to the nation’s rain-soaked 243rd birthday Thursday, ignoring ample rain and controversy to reshape the capital’s July 4 festivities into a military-heavy showcase on the cusp of his reelection campaign.
“Our nation is stronger today than it ever was before. It is its strongest now,” Mr. Trump said at his “Salute to America” address on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
Mr. Trump’s speech had the feel of an AP history exam at times, charting a course through U.S. history from “beloved general” George Washington to Lewis and Clark’s journey, Abe Lincoln’s fight to heal the nation and Thomas Edison’s lightbulb.
He offered an ambitious vision of his own, predicting the U.S. would return to the Moon and soon plant a flag on Mars.
Mr. Trump paid special attention to female suffragists and black Americans who led the Civil Rights Movement, though servicemen and women received the most praise.
“Today, just as it did 243 years ago, the future of American freedom rests on the shoulders of men and women willing to defend it,” Mr. Trump said.
The president called acting Secretary of Defense Mark Esper onto the stage for photo-ready flyovers from each of the military’s branches. Gathered supporters craned their necks as stealth bombers and other planes roared overhead.
All in all, Mr. Trump stuck to praise of America’s ideals and luminaries, avoiding the type of partisan speech that critics feared, though he repeated his boast of routing the Islamic State from Iraq and Syria.
“100% gone,” Mr. Trump said.
A rousing rendition of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” and a flyover from the Blue Angels capped it off, wowing the crowd.
Mr. Trump’s July 4 spectacular had generated controversy for weeks.
There were practical concerns, such as whether local streets could sustain heavy tanks. It’s also unclear how many millions the spectacle will cost in the end — though no matter the number, some felt it was inappropriate to bill taxpayers for what they viewed as a vanity project.
“Donald Trump is handing out tickets to his big donors. That’s a campaign event. And if he’s going to do a campaign event, then it should be paid for by his campaign contributions. It should not be paid for by the American taxpayer,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Massachusetts Democrat in the crowded 2020 Democratic field, said.
For his part, Mr. Trump in recent days said the tab for the event will be “very little compared to what it is worth.”
Still others were worried about politicizing Independence Day, or that it smacked of authoritarian displays in other nations.
That division was on display ahead of the speech. Protesters at the World War II Memorial, which is a within sight of the Lincoln Memorial, depicted Mr. Trump as a sculpture on a golden toilet with his phone in his hand.
Trump supporters hollered back at them, dubbing them “libtards.”
The rain served as the main distraction, however. Attendees wrapped themselves in clear plastic ponchos or braved the weather with slicked-down hair.
Ever the showman, Mr. Trump told folks to ignore the downpour and tune in.
“Weather looking good, clearing rapidly and temperatures going down fast,” he tweeted around 6 p.m., despite a number of people deploying umbrellas against the showers on-site.
Ardent supporters cheered the president as he arrived on the National Mall.
“USA! USA! USA!” they chanted as he took the stage on the same site as Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963.
— Kayleigh McEnany (@PressSec) July 5, 2019
The nation’s capital already has a famous July 4 celebration, known as “A Capitol Fourth,” which features a free concert.
Yet Mr. Trump had been pushing for a grand military display since July 2017, when he was wowed by the pomp of a Bastille Day parade in France.
He attempted to hold a military parade on Veterans Day in 2018, though it was scrapped due to concerns about the cost.
Mr. Trump finally got his wish on Thursday, after weeks of planning from the Interior Department and a diversion of funds from the National Park Service.
Vice President Mike Pence attended with his wife, Karen. Trump loyalists such as Rep. Mark Meadows, North Carolina Republican, and Tom Fitton — president of the conservative activist group Judicial Watch — were also among the crowd.
“God bless you, God bless America, and God bless the military. Happy Fourth of July,” Mr. Trump said as he urged folks to stick around for a beefed-up fireworks display.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 5, 2019
The president’s speech capped a typical day off.
He spent time at his golf club in Sterling, Virginia, and used Twitter to take a swing at Rep. Justin Amash, the Michigan Republican who’s been the sole Republican in Congress publicly backing impeachment of Mr. Trump in the wake of special counsel Robert Mueller’s report on Russian election meddling.
Mr. Amash quit the Republican Party on Thursday, using the Independence Day holiday to declare his rebellion against the poison of party politics.
Mr. Trump wished him good riddance, several hours before his call for American unity.
“Great news for the Republican Party as one of the dumbest & most disloyal men in Congress is ‘quitting’ the Party,” he tweeted, adding Mr. Amash feared a primary. “A total loser!”
• Maria Stainer, Moss Brennan and Emily Ketterer contributed to this report.
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