Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 July 2019

Trump asks Americans to ‘stay true to our cause’ on Independence Day

The president largely stuck to his script in his speech and didn't veer into his re-election campaign

President Donald Trump celebrated “the greatest political journey in human history” on Thursday in a July 4 commemoration before a soggy, 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 attacked him for taking centre stage on a holiday devoted to unity.

Mr Trump called on Americans to “stay true to our cause” in a “Salute to America” programme that adhered to patriotic themes and hailed an eclectic mix of history’s heroes, from the armed forces, space, civil rights and other aspects of American life.

He largely stuck to his script, avoiding diversions into his agenda or re-election campaign.

A late afternoon downpour drenched the capital’s Independence Day crowds and pointed to an evening of possible on-and-off storms.

But Mr Trump’s speech unfolded in occasional rain and the warplanes he had summoned conducted flyovers as planned.

By adding his own, one-hour production to capital festivities that typically draw hundreds of thousands anyway, he became the first president in nearly seven decades to address a crowd at the National Mall on Independence Day.

Protesters objecting to what they saw as his taking over the holiday launched an inflatable Donald Trump as an angry, nappy-clad baby.

Aides to the crowd-obsessed president fretted about the prospect of empty seats at his event.

They scrambled in recent days to distribute tickets and mobilise the Trump and Republican Party social media accounts to encourage participation for an event hastily arranged and surrounded with confusion.

Many who filed into the sprawling VIP section said they got their free tickets from members of Congress or from friends or neighbours who could not use theirs.

Outside that zone, a diverse mix of visitors, locals, veterans, tour groups, immigrant families and others milled about, some drawn by Mr Trump, some by curiosity, some by the holiday’s regular activities along the Mall.

Protesters earlier made their voices heard in sweltering heat by the Washington Monument, along the traditional parade route and elsewhere, while the VIP section at the reflecting pool served as a buffer for Mr Trump’s event.

“We think that he is making this about himself and it’s really a campaign rally,” said Medea Benjamin, co-director on anti-war organisation Codepink, who brought the Trump inflatable.

“We think that he’s a big baby. He’s erratic, he’s prone to tantrums, he doesn’t understand the consequences of his actions. And so this is a great symbol of how we feel about our president.”

The balloon remained tied down at the Mall because park officials restricted the group’s permission to move it or fill it with helium, Ms Benjamin said.

Protesters also handed out small Trump-baby balloons on sticks. Molly King, 13, of La Porte in Indiana, was a Trump supporter in a “Make America Great Again” hat but happily came away with a balloon.

“They’re making a big stink about it but it’s actually pretty cute,” she said. “I mean, why not love your president as you’d love a baby?”

A small crowd gathered to take pictures with the big balloon, which drew Trump supporters and detractors.

“Even though everybody has different opinions, everybody's getting along,” said Kevin Malton, a Trump supporter from Middlesboro, Kentucky.

But Daniela Guray, 19, from Chicago, held a “Dump Trump” sign and said she was subjected to a racial insult while walking along the Constitution Avenue parade route.

Ms Guray said she was told to go home.

She said she did not come to the Mall to protest but ended up doing so.

“I started seeing all the tanks with all the protests and that’s when I said, ‘Wait, this is not an actual Fourth of July',” she said. “Trump is making it his day rather than the Fourth of July.”

Weather permitting, Mr Trump planned flyovers by warplanes, aircraft in the presidential Air Force One and Marine One fleet and the Navy Blue Angels aerobatics team. A larger than usual fireworks display was assembled.

Mr Trump was defensive on Wednesday when talking about the event, tweeting that the cost “will be very little compared to what it is worth".

A child waves flags as people take photos while US President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump arrive for the "Salute to America" event during Fourth of July Independence Day celebrations at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington. REUTERS/Carlos Barria
A child waves flags as people take photos while US President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump arrive for the "Salute to America" event during Fourth of July Independence Day celebrations at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

“We own the planes, we have the pilots, the airport is right next door," he said. "All we need is the fuel.

“We own the tanks and all. Fireworks are donated by two of the greats.”

Mr Trump glossed over the expense of shipping tanks and other military vehicles to Washington by rail and guarding them for several days, and other costs.

Not since 1951, when president Harry Truman spoke before a large gathering on the Washington Monument grounds to mark the 175th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, has a US leader made an Independence Day speech on the Mall.

“this business of diverting money and military assets to use them as a kind of prop, to prop up a presidential ego, is not reflecting well on our country,” said Pete Buttigieg, one of the Democrats running for the presidency.

Mr Buttigieg, the Mayor of South Bend, Indiana, is a Navy Reserve veteran who served in Afghanistan in 2014.

The National Parks Conservation Foundation and Democracy Forward called on the Interior Department’s watchdog to investigate what they said might be an “unlawful decision to divert” national parks money to the spectacle.

Mr Trump and the event’s organisers may have to reimburse the government millions of dollars if he went into campaign mode, in breach of federal appropriations law and the Hatch Act that bars politicking on government time, Walter Shaub said.

Mr Shaub left the Office of Government Ethics in 2017 after clashing with the White House over ethics and disclosure issues.

Washington has held an Independence Day celebration for decades, with a parade along Constitution Avenue, a concert on the Capitol lawn by the National Symphony Orchestra, and fireworks starting at dusk near the Washington Monument.

Mr Trump altered the lineup by adding his speech, moving the fireworks closer to the Lincoln Memorial and summoning the tanks and warplanes.

Updated: July 5, 2019 04:35 AM

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