President Donald Trump stood before the fabled Lincoln Memorial on the Fourth of July and, as the producer-in-chief, sought to place himself at the center of the nation’s history.
With subdued remarks, which touched on everything from the founding of the country to the civil rights movement to America’s ingenuity and its military, the president for the first time in recent history made himself the center of Washington, D.C.’s longstanding, non-partisan Independence Day celebration.
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To rebut any criticism that military leaders did not support the event, Trump at one point called up to the stage Acting Secretary of Defense Mark Esper and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford. The two men awkwardly flanked Trump as he delivered part of his speech in the rain.
The event was punctuated by flyovers of U.S. Marine Corps and U.S. Navy aircrafts, the president’s own plane, and the Blue Angels, which closed out the speech.
Part pep talk, part rambling history lesson, the president’s roughly 45-minute speech attempted to highlight Americans’ grit and resilience.
Speaking before a bulletproof enclosure covered by raindrops, he called out by name diverse historical figures including Betsy Ross, Frederick Douglass, and Harriet Tubman. He mentioned the women’s suffrage movement and asked a prominent member of the civil rights movement to stand for applause. He gave a nod to the speech that the late Martin Luther King Jr. delivered in the same location in 1963, during which he unveiled his famous line “let freedom ring.”
And Trump touted space exploration. “Someday soon we will plant the American flag on Mars!” he said to applause.
For a man who deferred his draft to the Vietnam War several times through a medical exception, Trump spent much of the speech talking up the sacrifice and might of the armed forces and painting a portrait of a president entirely one with the military.
“No enemy has met our people without being met by the roar of thunder,” Trump said at one point.
True to the promise of White House aides, the president steered clear of divisive political rhetoric and tried to deliver a unifying speech as he heads into his 2020 campaign.
“The future belongs to the brave, the strong, the proud, and the free. We are one people, chasing one dream and one magnificent destiny. We all share the same heroes, the same home, the same heart, and we are all made by the same almighty God,” Trump said toward the end of the speech.
Even amid the rain, cloudy skies, and humidity, VIP ticket holders did ultimately turn out for the event and the crowd extended from the Lincoln Memorial to almost the end of the Reflecting Pool – even if the fields beyond were not as populated.
The White House had been scrambling over the last week to hand out tickets to the hastily arranged event, which Trump has been dreaming of since July 2017 when he visited France and was wowed by a Bastille Day parade.