WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump was as good as his word Thursday: He saluted America.
In one of the least polarizing speeches of his presidency, Trump paid tribute to America’s armed forces at a July Fourth appearance before the Lincoln Memorial in Washington that unfolded amid stormy skies and criticism that he was politicizing the nation’s Independence Day celebrations.
“We will never forget that we are Americans and the future belongs to us,” Trump said. “The future belongs to the brave, the strong, the proud and the free. We are one people chasing one dream and one magnificent destiny.”
Trump’s speech, delivered close to the spot where Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I have a dream speech,” lacked the dark imagery of many of his campaign speeches and struck a more optimistic tone than he typically adopts.
As warplanes roared overhead and the jumbo jet used as Air Force One performed a rare flyover over the National Mall, Trump spoke as critics accused him of exploiting the nation’s birthday party for his own political ends in an event he had dubbed “A Salute to America.” Trump’s speech lacked the partisan rhetoric of his rallies. But the event nevertheless bolstered the President’s narrative that he is a strong commander in chief and a decisive leader.
Large crowds of people, some wearing “Make America Great Again” caps and others holding Trump “baby balloons” lampooning the President, gathered on the Mall. It wasn’t immediately clear whether the throngs were any larger than for the capital’s traditional July Fourth fireworks show.
The President punctuated his speech with carefully choreographed flyovers of some of the military’s most sophisticated aircraft, including a B-2 bomber and a pair of F-35 jets. Choirs sang the anthems of each branch of the military before the planes streaked overhead, rattling windows in Washington.
His remarks did not turn into the hyper-partisan campaign-style rally that some of his critics had feared would besmirch the normally nonpartisan atmosphere of the nation’s Independence Day commemorations.
But the President’s involvement of the military in an event that was seen as bolstering his profile at the start of his reelection race sparked concerns among some former and current military officers.
“As long as we stay true to our course, 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 said.
In the run-up to the celebration, Trump’s demand for military hardware like the tanks he had seen on the Champs-Élysées in Paris when he attend France’s 2017 national Bastille Day commemorations sparked a debate about whether he was exploiting his role as commander in chief.
At the end of the evening, with fireworks detonating in spectacular fashion over Washington, it was not clear if Trump had pulled off what he had predicted on Twitter would be “one of the biggest celebrations in the history of our Country.”
But the President had toned down the political fury that threatened to make the July Fourth celebrations a metaphor for the excess and divisiveness of much of his presidency.
The Independence Day events took place at a time of national political angst over Trump’s presidency. On the eve of the holiday the President ordered his administration to press on with an attempt to insert a question about citizenship into the 2020 census, despite unfavorable legal rulings, including from the Supreme Court.
Trump’s decision to muscle his way into the national holiday reflected the raised political temperature of his presidency. It dismayed observers who revered the day as one of the rare nonpartisan moments in American life. But the outrage stirred over his plans among the Washington media and establishment reinforced the President’s position as a scourge of the East Coast establishment.
Many Americans likely appreciated the President’s veneration of the armed forces and highlighting of some of the country’s most sophisticated weaponry.
The President delivered his speech from behind a rain-streaked transparent bulletproof barrier. Past commanders in chief, especially in the post-9/11 era, have taken pains to avoid injecting partisanship into Independence Day events.
Former Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama hosted more discreet events on the South Lawn of the White House. Pentagon leaders had reservations about putting tanks or other armored vehicles on display, a source with direct knowledge of the situation said.