President Donald Trump largely stuck to the script during his “Salute to America” outside the Lincoln Memorial on Thursday, championing the U.S. military to a crowd of thousands while planes, helicopters and even a stealth bomber flew overhead.
The president’s touted Fourth of July celebration began with an afternoon downpour earlier in the day, prompting fears that his vows for a display of military might and the “biggest ever” fireworks show would be scuttled. But thousands turned out for the event anyway, many wearing red “Make America Great Again” hats, as Trump gave an elaborate military tribute and de facto history lesson.
“Our nation is stronger today than it ever was before,” Trump said Thursday evening. “It is its strongest now.”
At one point, Trump encouraged young people to join the armed forces as he championed those with past military honors who were on hand for the celebrations, including recipients of the Medal of Honor.
“To young Americans across the country, now is a chance to join the military and make a statement in life, and you should do it,” he said.
Throughout the nearly hourlong address, the president shared a lengthy and at times awkward timeline of each branch of the armed services, referencing Civil War battles and Revolutionary War generals. Between each act, military hardware flew over the National Mall, including an appearance by one of the Air Force’s B-2 stealth bombers and the new Marine One helicopter, which is still in testing.
The day was largely modeled after France’s Bastille Day celebrations, which Trump saw in person in 2017 and has since hoped to re-create. His initial plans to do so during Veterans Day fell flat amid reports it would cost more than $90 million, but the president rallied officials to carry out the “Salute to America” early last month, giving organizers less than 30 days to plan.
Reports earlier this week that Trump had requested military vehicles as part of the July Fourth event prompted experts to warn that the tanks could severely damage streets and bridges. The tanks were ultimately included in the event but remained parked so as not to cause any damage to infrastructure.
The president also glossed over concerns about the cost of shipping tanks to the capital and guarding them. It’s unclear how much Thursday’s event will cost and the White House has refused to elaborate, but Trump drew fire earlier this week amid reports that the National Park Service was directed to divert about $2.5 million in park fees to help pay for it.
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) tweeted on Wednesday: “This is what authoritarians do: @realDonaldTrump is taking $2.5 million away from our National Park Service to glorify himself with a spectacle of military tanks rolling through Washington.”
At one point during his address, the president dreamily referenced his proposals to create a sixth branch of the U.S. military, the Space Force, and championed plans to see America return to the surface of the moon.
“We’re going to be back on the moon very soon,” Trump said, before continuing: “And someday soon we will plant the American flag on Mars. It’s happening, team, it’s happening.”
The day was not without controversy. Protesters who burned an American flag clashed with supporters of the president outside the White House shortly before Trump began speaking. The infamous Trump baby blimp was also seen in Washington, D.C., on hand as organizers condemned what they called Trump’s “military spectacle.”
Trump ended the evening with a flyover by the Blue Angels and a call for unity as a military band played the “Battle Hymn of the Republic.”
“We will never forget that we are Americans, and the future belongs to us,” the president said. “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.”
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story said the president’s proposed Space Force would be the fifth branch of the military. It would be the sixth.