WASHINGTON -- President Donald Trump celebrated "the greatest political journey in human history" Thursday in a Fourth of July commemoration before a soggy, cheering crowd on the grounds of the Lincoln Memorial. Supporters welcomed his tribute to the U.S. military while protesters assailed him for putting himself center stage on a holiday devoted to unity.
"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 said on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, flanked by American flags. "We are part of one of the greatest stories ever told -- the story of America."
Trump avoided overly political themes, calling the speech a "Salute to America." The event included military tanks, flyovers by military jets and Air Force One, and was set to culminate with an extended fireworks display.
Trump called on Americans to "stay true to our cause" in a program that hailed an eclectic mix of history's heroes, from the armed forces, space, civil rights and other endeavors of American life.
A late afternoon downpour drenched the capital's Independence Day crowds and presaged an evening of possible on-and-off storms. But Trump's speech unfolded in occasional rain, and the warplanes and presidential aircraft he had summoned conducted their flyovers as planned, capped by the Navy Blue Angels aerobatics team.
Trump recalled key developments in American history, including the country's founding, exploration of the West, women's suffrage and the civil-rights movement.
In the speech, Trump described some of the most noteworthy inventors in American history and highlighted cultural innovations and advances in medicine. Trump pivoted from his discussion of history to say the nation is stronger than ever before.
"Someday soon we will plant the American flag on Mars," Trump said.
Trump praised "Americans of faith," along with military service members and law enforcement officials. He thanked families whose relatives were killed during military duty.
The president also highlighted themes that unite Americans.
"We are all made by the same almighty God," he said.
"As long as we stay true to our cause -- 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 declared to chants of "USA, USA."
"God bless you, God bless the military, and God bless America. Happy Fourth of July."
Trump set aside a historic place -- a stretch of the Mall from the Lincoln Monument to the midpoint of the reflecting pool -- for a mix of invited military members, Republican and Trump campaign donors and others. It's where Martin Luther King Jr. gave his "I have a dream" speech, President Barack Obama and Trump held inaugural concerts and protesters swarmed into the water when supporters of President Richard Nixon put on a July 4, 1970, celebration, with the president sending taped remarks from California.
Daniel Cortez, 68, of Stafford, Va., who was wounded in Vietnam as a Marine infantryman, sat in the VIP section. The director of the National Veterans Court Alliance, Cortez said he received an invitation from the White House on Monday.
"I'm not a Republican. I'm an independent," said Cortez, the recipient of the Navy Commendation Medal for valor, a Purple Heart and the Navy-Marine Corps Medal. "But when the White House calls, I'm not going to pass up a seat at an event like this. Patriots should go to any White House. I'm honored to go."
Protesters made their voices heard in sweltering heat of the day by the Washington Monument, along the traditional parade route and elsewhere.
The anti-war group Code Pink displayed a 20-foot balloon depicting Trump as a baby wearing a diaper.
"We think that he is making this about himself and it's really a campaign rally," said Medea Benjamin, the organization's co-director. "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 had remained tied down at the Mall because park officials restricted the group's permission to move it or fill it with helium, Benjamin said. Windy conditions caused handlers to deflate it.
Protesters also handed out small Trump-baby balloons on sticks. Molly King of La Porte, Ind., a 13-year-old Trump supporter in sunglasses and a "Make America Great Again" cap, happily came away with one.
"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," said Kevin Malton, a Trump supporter from Middlesboro, Ky., "everybody's getting along."
Some in the crowd said they'd come specifically to see Trump.
Trump supporter Kim Tarver, a secretary who had traveled from Clanton, Ala., to celebrate Independence Day in the capital, arrived early and said she wouldn't be deterred by rain.
"I'm only here once," she said.
One woman wore a "I'm a Trump Deplorable" T-shirt, followed not far behind by a man in a "Veterans for Trump" shirt.
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 commander in chief made an Independence Day speech to a sizable crowd on the Mall.
Pete Buttigieg, one of the Democrats running for president, said: "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." Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Ind., is a Navy Reserve veteran who served in Afghanistan in 2014.
Democratic presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden said in a speech Thursday in Iowa that for Trump, the event was "designed more to stroke his ego than celebrate American ideals."
Two groups, the National Parks Conservation Foundation and Democracy Forward, want the Interior Department's internal watchdog to investigate what they say may be a "potentially unlawful decision to divert" national parks money to Trump's "spectacle."
The Trump administration has deflected questions about the cost of the event as District of Columbia officials said they're concerned they'd be left with large bills.
On Wednesday, Trump pushed back, posting on Twitter that the cost "will be very little compared to what it is worth."
"We own the planes, we have the pilots, the airport is right next door (Andrews), all we need is the fuel," he said, referring to Maryland's Joint Base Andrews, home for some of the planes expected for the holiday flyover. "We own the tanks and all. Fireworks are donated by two of the greats."
Washington has held an Independence Day celebration for decades, featuring a parade along Constitution Avenue, a concert on the Capitol lawn with music by the National Symphony Orchestra and fireworks beginning at dusk near the Washington Monument.
Trump altered the lineup by adding his speech, moving the fireworks closer to the Lincoln Memorial and summoning the tanks and warplanes.
Information for this article was contributed by Darlene Superville, Calvin Woodward, Lynn Berry, Kali Robinson, Zeke Miller, Kevin Freking, Matthew Daly and Ellen Knickmeyer of The Associated Press; by Michael D. Shear of The New York Times; and by Josh Wingrove, Laura Davison, Giovanna Bellotti Azevedo and Ryan Haar of Bloomberg News.
A Section on 07/05/2019