on Thursday delivered a speech heavy on military imagery and light on political rhetoric during his “Salute to America” event to mark Independence Day, capping off weeks of controversy with a largely uncontroversial appearance.
The president spoke for 45 minutes during which he strongly praised and highlighted U.S. armed forces. He was flanked by supporters and Pentagon officials, and the speech was highlighted by multiple flyovers involving military aircraft.
“That same American spirit that emboldened our founders has kept us strong throughout our history,” Trump said. “To this day that spirit runs through the veins of every American patriot. It lives on in each and every one of you here today.
“It is the spirit, daring and defiance, excellence and adventure, courage and confidence, loyalty and love that built this country into the most exceptional nation in the history of the world, and our nation is stronger today than it ever was before. it is its strongest now.”
With the Blue Angels flying above him and military tanks standing near the National Mall, the event was intended to fulfill Trump’s desire for a military celebration similar to the one he enjoyed during a 2017 trip to Paris for Bastille Day.
The military overtones had been criticized by Democrats and officials in Washington, D.C., who felt it was inappropriate for the Fourth of July. D.C. leaders have also raised concerns about the cost of the event and potential damage to local infrastructure from military hardware.
The day before the speech, it was revealed that the National Park Service (NPS), which has jurisdiction over the National Mall, had redirected $2.5 million from its overall budget to help pay for the Salute to America event. The full cost will exceed that when factoring in the cost of military equipment and security.
Trump steered away from political rhetoric in his speech, however, and did not address the controversy over the event, which he was heavily involved in planning.
“The future of American freedom rests on the shoulders of men and women willing to defend it,” Trump said in front of the Lincoln Memorial. “Now is the chance to join our military and make a truly great statement in life, and you should do it.”
Trump’s pitch for joining one of the branches of the armed forces came after he said that “today, we come together as one nation with this very special salute to America. We celebrate our history, our people and the heroes who proudly defend our flag — the brave men and women of the United States military!”
Trump also praised law enforcement, and the closest he came to current politics was highlighting Immigration and Customs Enforcement and other border patrol groups that have seen public criticism mount over the treatment of immigrants at the southern border and the administration’s hard-line immigration policies.
Both pro- and anti-Trump activists had packed the National Mall for hours before the speech, with the group Code Pink bringing both a large “Baby Trump” balloon and a large statue meant to depict Trump tweeting on the toilet.
Two protesters were arrested and two U.S. Secret Service agents received minor injuries in a flag-burning incident outside the White House that led to a brief scuffle between groups.
Thousands of people ultimately filled in the mall from the Lincoln Memorial to the Washington Monument, many of them supportive of the president’s remarks. A “USA!” chant broke out as he stepped to the microphone, and a few supporters called out “four more years” as he exited.
White House officials feared in the days leading up to the event that inclement weather and late-developing logistics could cap attendance, presenting a problem for a president obsessed with crowd size.
Ultimately, Trump appeared pleased with the final result:
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 5, 2019
Trump also touted the creation of a new Space Force in his speech, and promised that the U.S. would soon return to the moon, as well as put a man on Mars for the first time.
“Someday soon we will plant the American flag on Mars, it’s happening,” Trump said.
The strength of the American spirit was a recurring theme of the rainy evening address.
“Loyalty and love built this country into the most exceptional nation in the history of the world,” Trump said, adding that the U.S. “is at its strongest now.”
Trump emphasized the unity of Americans, saying that “as we gather this evening in the joy of freedom, we remember that we all share a truly extraordinary heritage. Together, we are part of one of the greatest stories ever told — the story of America.”
—Updated at 9:05 p.m.