“We must go forward as a nation with that same unity of purpose,” Trump said, filmed through rain-streaked bulletproof glass as showers beat steadily on his audience. “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.”
After a flyover from the plane that normally serves as Air Force One, Trump delivered 20 minutes of remarks that were an homage to the nation’s early history and its military. But he also spoke about more recent advancements in civil rights and gender equality. And he looked ahead, declaring the American flag would soon be planted on Mars.
Ahead of his speech, Trump’s skeptics wondered if the notoriously unpredictable President would remain apolitical. And White House aides scrambled to distribute tickets, worrying about Trump’s reaction if the crowd appeared thin.
But by Thursday evening, a soggy mass of onlookers — many wearing red “Make America Great Again” hats — had assembled near the Lincoln Memorial to hear the President deliver what was ultimately a message of national pride.
“As we gather this evening in the joy of freedom, we remember that we all share a truly extraordinary heritage,” Trump said in remarks that did not veer off-script. “Together, we are part of one of the greatest stories ever told — the story of America.”
Trump’s plans were a sharp change from how the holiday has been marked in the nation’s capital by previous presidents from either party.
The spectacle was likely to delight many Americans who view the military as one remaining unifying force for pride in a country divided along political, racial and economic lines. But it’s also drawn skepticism and criticism for its costs and political hue.
There were to be about 750 to 800 military personnel taking part in the celebration, a defense official told CNN. That didn’t include the 900 hundred members of the DC National Guard who were activated to provide traffic control and security on the streets and in the subway system.
That left some of his aides working overtime to fill out the space along the Mall where he spoke. Some people who were offered tickets this week — including donors and administration officials — said they’d already made other plans.
Trump addressed the masses in front of Abraham Lincoln’s 19-foot marble likeness, framed by the iconic Doric columns of the 16th President’s memorial. On television, however, his face was partially obscured by rain streaks on the clear barrier constructed to protect him.
Presidents haven’t traditionally delivered public remarks, much less an address on the National Mall. And the day hasn’t been marked by such overtly militaristic displays.
That caused concern even among US military brass that their ranks could end up politicized, according to people familiar with the matter. In the planning for the event, Pentagon leaders had reservations about putting tanks or other armored vehicles on display, a source with direct knowledge of the situation said.
As the final details came together, several top military chiefs of the individual services did not attend and instead sent alternates, though some said they had prior plans.
The military displays Trump ordered up — which included the flyovers, tanks and other ceremonial units such as the Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps, the US Army Band (“Pershing’s Own”) and the US Marine Corps Silent Drill Team — led some to compare the event to the authoritarian parades seen in places like China or North Korea.
Through it all, Trump took enormous interest in even the smallest details, from the staging to the military equipment on display.
It’s those details that were likely to ratchet up the costs of the event, though the massive fireworks display that will cap the evening has been donated.
It’s not clear how much the event will cost altogether, though Trump attempted to downplay the amount on Wednesday.
“The cost of our great Salute to America tomorrow will be very little compared to what it is worth,” he wrote on Twitter. “We own the planes, we have the pilots, the airport is right next door (Andrews), all we need is the fuel. We own the tanks and all. Fireworks are donated by two of the greats. Nice!”
That wasn’t entirely truthful — the planes used in the flyovers came from California, Missouri, Kentucky and Florida. And the costs of the event extend well beyond the military equipment.
This story has been updated with additional developments Thursday.
CNN’s Jim Acosta and Ryan Browne contributed to this report.