WASHINGTON — One by one came the flyovers — the Coast Guard helicopters, the brand new F-22 Raptors, the Blue Angels — at President Trump’s Fourth of July celebration of the military, an event he orchestrated with tanks on the National Mall, military leaders in attendance, and himself center stage.
“Our nation is stronger today than it was ever before,” Trump declared, speaking behind a pane of bulletproof glass that was streaked with rain. “It is its strongest now.”
Trump’s “Salute to America” was the culmination of his long-held dream of showing off the nation’s military hardware — a dream that drew deep concern from his critics about the politicization of the armed forces and some reticence from the defense community.
As the president spoke Thursday in front of the Lincoln Memorial, he stayed uncharacteristically on-script, swapping the partisan barbs and embittered asides that characterize his MAGA rallies for a focused tribute to the branches of the military.
“Together we are part of one of the greatest stories ever told, the story of America,” Trump said. “It is the epic tale of a great nation, whose people have risked everything for what they know is right and what they know is true.”
He paid tribute to figures in the crowd, such as an astronaut, a nun, and a civil rights activist, and referred to the famous speech that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered right where Trump was standing.
‘‘Americans love our freedom and no one will ever take it away from us,’’ Trump said. ‘‘For Americans, nothing is impossible.
‘‘In 1963, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stood here on these very steps and called on our nation to live out the true meaning of its creed and let freedom ring for every citizen all across our land,’’ he said.
Even if Trump managed to avoid talk of politics, and himself, the spectacle of a president inserting himself so centrally into the nation’s Independence Day celebration vaulted a day generally reserved for grilling, flag T-shirts, and feel-good displays of patriotism into America’s partisan fracas. The nation’s deep political divides were on tense display as spectators descended on the National Mall, with many taking sides for or against Trump.
“I saw how Trump’s opponents came out saying all sorts of nonsense: ‘Oh, this is what dictators do,’ ” said David Shoup, 66, a veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan who said the criticism motivated him to drive 660 miles from Dublin, Ga., to park himself on the National Mall. “I thought, I’m going up to support the president.”
Around Shoup, hundreds of spectators clad in “Make America Great Again” hats or swathed in clear ponchos over Trump T-shirts lined up near chain-link fencing close to the Lincoln Memorial, where Trump was to speak in front of an area cordoned off for people with special tickets. Some of the VIP tickets were reportedly distributed by the Republican National Committee, much to the consternation of Democrats.
“I think this is Caeser throwing a party for his supporters,” said Ed Schudel, 51, a conservative Democrat from Virginia who said the event felt more partisan, more angry than previous celebrations he has attended on the Mall.
The event also highlighted the president’s complex relationship with Washington’s defense establishment and military leaders. Trump, who never served in uniform, loves the trappings of the military even though he has frustrated his defense advisers with hasty decision-making and wariness of foreign entanglements. Last month, The New York Times reported, Trump ordered a strike on Iran and then called it off at the last minute. He also became the first president to step into North Korea after a meeting with Kim Jong Un arranged almost by tweet.
At one point during his speech on Thursday, Trump bragged the US military had helped to “obliterate the ISIS Caliphate just recently in Syria — 100 percent gone.”
Syria has been a particularly controversial issue for the president. Last year, Trump’s defense secretary, retired general Jim Mattis, resigned after the president abruptly announced he planned to pull US troops out of Syria.
“He views part of America’s strength as coming from rhetoric and coming from showing — perhaps even exaggerating — the size of the stick we’re carrying,” said Fernando Cutz, who was the senior adviser to Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster, Trump’s former national security adviser.
“This is a president that actually doesn’t want to go to war.”
Trump had wanted a military parade since Bastille Day of 2017, when he watched the French President Emanuel Macron glide down the Champs Elysees in a military command car, surrounded by mounted guards.
“We’re going to have to try and top it,” Trump said at the time. “It was really so well done.”
The United States has held numerous military parades over the course of its history, including in 1991 after the end of the Gulf War, and holidays like Veterans Day and Memorial Day frequently use military weaponry and vehicles to honor the troops.
But previous presidents — including Dwight D. Eisenhower — had deep reservations about gratuitous displays of military might.
“He said many times that military force and military power was a tragedy, it was a symbol of failure, it was a waste, and it robbed people of all of the benefits of civilization,” said William Hitchcock, a professor of history at the University of Virginia.
After considered pushback from local government all the way up to the Department of Defense, Trump’s parade idea was scrapped — but the “Salute to America” was eventually born. With tanks sitting under steady rain in Washington by Thursday evening, it was a far cry from Trump’s initial vision.
“The victim is the US military which is in the middle of it, trying desperately to be apolitical and frankly would rather be home grilling burgers with their family than getting used as wallpaper and garden gnomes on a stage,” said Peter Feaver, an adviser on the National Security Council’s staff during the administration of George W. Bush.
Trump administration officials have refused to say how much taxpayers will pay for the celebration. The Washington Post reported that the National Park Service is diverting almost $2.5 million in fees to cover some of the costs.
On the Mall, even some supporters of Trump, like Victoria Camp, a retired schoolteacher who lives in the Washington area, said disapprovingly that the president had imbued “America’s birthday” with politics.
As if to prove her point, she began complaining about Democrats. “If we think we’re going to give away free this, free that, cancel your debt, reparations, where is the incentive to do or become anything?” she asked.
Further down the Mall, Meg Haugh lamented the fact that she had had to deflate a balloon depicting Trump as a baby in a diaper in order to get past security for the event — but brightened up when a passing spectator, Carrie Fuhrer, saw her Pete Buttigieg T-shirt and gave her a high-five.
“It’s so very scary that someone would be able to do this,” Fuhrer said, looking at the people clad in Trump gear around her, and said she was leaving: “We’re going back to a real town, with real people.”
But Jim Zinni, a Marine veteran and government contractor in a Make America Great Again hat who traveled to the event with his wife from New Bern, N.C., said he deeply appreciated the tribute to his service.
“That’s what makes your heart pump, that’s what Fourth of July is about,” Zinni said. “The military has always kept our country free.”Material from The New York Times and the Associated Press was used in this report. Jess Bidgood can be reached at jess. firstname.lastname@example.org.