WASHINGTON – Flanked by military vehicles and an array of American flags, President Donald Trump paid tribute to troops during an Independence Day celebration that drew crowds of supporters and protesters.
"Our nation is stronger today than it ever was before," Trump said, echoing a line from his campaign speeches as he stood in front of the Lincoln Memorial amid hot and rainy weather.
Trump said the country's future "rests on the shoulders of men and women willing to defend it."
"As long as we stay true to our cause, as long as we remember our great history and as long as we never stop fighting for a better future, then there will be nothing that America cannot do," he said.
The day featured a parade, military flyovers, martial music and political demonstrations.
Trump supporters and protesters gathered in Washington from Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House to the expanse of National Mall. No major violence was reported, though at least one scuffle broke out at a flag burning in front of the White House.
While telling the story of George Washington and other revolutionaries who defeated the British more than two centuries ago, Trump also singled out each branch of the modern U.S. military, including his proposed "Space Force."
Trump also discussed U.S. accomplishments, from Alexander Graham Bell and the telephone to the Wright Brothers and the airplane. He introduced a number of invited guests, from the flight director on the first moon landing in 1969 to gold star families who lost loved ones in battle. He pledged to "plant the American flag on Mars."
At one point, Trump stumbled over his text. In discussing the American Revolution he said, "our Army manned the air, it rammed the ramparts, it took over the airports, it did everything it had to do."
There was no air travel in 18th Century America.
Air Force One flyover
As Trump spoke, Abrams tanks and Bradley Fighting Vehicles flanked the platform at the Lincoln Memorial. Air Force One flew overhead against a cloudy twilight sky as the president and first lady Melania Trump ascended the makeshift stage in front of the memorial.
At different points, sometimes amid a light rain, Trump paused in his speech to allow flyovers of various pieces of equipment, from Coast Guard choppers to a B-2 stealth bomber to the "Blue Angels" that perform at air shows. While local air traffic controllers had warned that the weather might prevent flyovers, the show went on as scheduled.
The 47-minute speech ended with a military band and choir performing a rendition of "Battle Hymn of the Republic." During the event, the band played the Army, Navy and Air Force marching songs.
Trump, who spoke behind a shield of rain-smeared bulletproof glass, also noted he was standing near the spot where Martin Luther King, Jr., delivered his "I Have A Dream" speech in 1963.
During another discussion of American heroes, Trump mentioned Betsy Ross. He did not mention the current controversy surrounding the Betsy Ross flag. Nike pulled shoes featuring a "Betsy Ross flag" after former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick raised concerns about the design, saying some white supremacist groups were using that version of the flag as a symbol.
The weather may have held down the crowd, but Trump supporters packed the area in front of the stage, and on either side of the Reflecting Pool that stretches away from the Lincoln Memorial toward the Washington Monument.
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"That same American Spirit that emboldened our founders has kept us strong throughout our history," Trump said. "To this day, that spirit runs through the veins of every American patriot. It lives on in each and every one of you."
On the National Mall earlier Thursday, the liberal activist organization Code Pink inflated a Baby Trump blimp, depicting an orange-hued Trump in a diaper clutching a Twitter-ready cell phone in his right hand. It has become a fixture at major protests including recently in London and at the U.S.-Mexico border. The balloon was later deflated because of wind on the Mall.
Trump said he was inspired to hold the Fourth of July extravaganza by a Bastille Day parade he attended in Paris two years. He has long said he wanted a similar event in Washington to honor the U.S. military, complete with flyovers and rolling military hardware.
But critics have accused him of injecting politics in a traditionally nonpartisan holiday celebration with his "Salute to America" event.
A large area was fenced off around the Lincoln Memorial, preventing people without invitations from getting to the monument.
It was the first time a presidential administration has sponsored a Fourth of July event since the Richard Nixon administration backed an "Honor America Day" in 1970. Nixon was out of town, though he did deliver a speech by video. Protesters stormed the Nixon event, also at the Lincoln Memorial, nearly shutting it down.
On Thursday in front of the White House, protesters, some wearing T-shirts that said "Revolution - Nothing Less!" lit up an American flag on Pennsylvania Avenue, the flame rising high above the street. Counter-demonstrators wearing Trump gear rushed the protesters who surrounded the flag, leading to fisticuffs and throw-downs that had to be broken up by police.
Activists also brought a 16-foot-tall "Dumping Trump" robot featuring the president sitting on a golden toilet wearing a MAGA-style hat saying "Make America Great Again: Impeach Me."
Nearby Trump supporters, wearing bright red hats emblazoned by the slogan, Make America Great Again, responded by describing the protesters as "snowflakes" and chanting "I love America! I love America!"
Mike Holy, 58, from Baltimore and an Independence Day parade regular, was holding a “Dump Trump” sign “To let Trump know that he doesn’t own the Fourth of July,” Holy said.
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Trump said his viewing of a Bastille Day parade in Paris two years ago inspired his desire to host a military-themed event in Washington; critics said the event seemed more about promoting himself.
Critics noted that tickets to Trump's events went to supporters and Republican Party members, while the population at large was shut out.
Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg, a veteran, said the planning of the Trump event seemed designed to boost his own ego.
'Shows of muscle'
“Reducing our nation to tanks and shows of muscle just makes us look like the kind of loud mouth guy at the bar, instead of the extremely diverse and energetic nation that we are," he said during a campaign stop in Iowa.
While Trump steered clear of politics in his speech, many of his supporters in the crowd expressed great interest in his 2020 re-election bid.
While waiting in line for about an hour wait, Trump supporters Will Bowman, his son Peyton and June Davis talked about the importance of turnout in next year's election. The Bowmans and Davis had never met before.
“That’s the beauty of this event,” Will Bowman said. “You meet people from all walks of life.”
Davis said she was excited for the military display, despite criticism from protesters.
“That’s why we’re here today,” Davis said. “The military takes care of us.”
Will Bowman said he believed the day would be unforgettable for his children.
“(Peyton)’s never going to forget this day for the rest of his life,” he said.
Contributing: Elizabeth Lawrence, Sarah Elbeshbishi, Olivia Sanchez, Jason Lalljee, Max Cohen, Nicholas Wu and Ledyard King
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'Nothing America cannot do': Donald Trump touts U.S. military strength in 4th of July speech