WASHINGTON: With tanks on display and jets flying overhead, President Donald Trump praised the military and urged young people to join the armed forces on Thursday (Jul 4) in a celebration of Independence Day that critics said the president had politicised.
Trump, a Republican who admired flashy displays of national pride and military strength in France, dismissed concerns ahead of the ceremony about the expense and militaristic overtones of the event outside the 97-year-old Lincoln Memorial, a symbol of national unity.
"Our nation is stronger today than it ever was before. It is its strongest now," Trump said from a platform in front of the famous memorial, echoing a theme he uses at campaign rallies.
He spoke positively about the military, and with well-planned choreography, told stories about each branch to introduce separate fly-overs of military aircraft.
"For over 65 years, no enemy Air Force has managed to kill a single American soldier. Because the skies belong to the United States of America," he said.
The speech was to be followed by a concert on the US Capitol lawn at the opposite end of the National Mall and fireworks, weather permitting.
Thousands of supporters wearing Trump's signature "Make America Great Again" hats, along with opponents questioning the cost of the event, poured into the US capital despite scorching temperatures and intermittent rain.
Although the Salute To America show is officially open to the public, the section directly in front of Trump was reserved for VIP Republican donors and allies, as well as top military brass.
Those without tickets had to stay outside at least two layers of fencing and will have to watch on giant screens.
Trump's decision to make an address and turn the event into a celebration of the US military has angered his opponents and upset local Washington officials, accustomed to arranging July 4th events without political interference.
"What, I wonder, will Donald Trump say this evening when he speaks to the nation at an event designed more to stroke his ego than celebrate American ideals?" said leading Democratic White House contender Joe Biden in a speech in Iowa.
But some visitors readily approved the idea.
"It's going to be fabulous, I'm excited, said Dee Ranson, a 55-year-old from Florida visiting with her family.
"I think it's awesome, I think it shows courage and patriotic enthusiasm. He is not afraid," she said of Trump.
SCALED-BACK DISPLAY OF MIGHT
Trump originally wanted a grand military parade for the holiday, ostensibly inspired by France's rollout of its military might on its own national day.
But instead, he has gotten a scaled-back version, with some US armoured vehicles parked for display near the monument and a flyover.
That included the modified Boeing 747 used as the president's own Air Force One, and F-35s fighters and jets from the Navy's Blue Angels air show acrobatics team.
But it is also drawing demonstrators attacking Trump's alleged militarism.
Leftist organisation Code Pink is deploying its "Baby Trump" blimp, a large inflated doll depicting the president in diapers.
But the National Park Service denied permission to fill the inflatable with helium, so the cranky, infantile Trump balloon will stay on the ground.