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WASHINGTON – Despite warnings by public health officials about the spread of COVID-19, President Donald Trump hosted a July Fourth party Saturday at which he assailed the "angry mob" that opposes him and defended his administration's coronavirus response despite record high case numbers.
"We are now in the process of defeating the radical left, the Marxists, the anarchists, the agitators, the looters, and people who in many instances have absolutely no clue what they are doing," Trump said during a "Salute to America" event at the White House.
Trump claimed progress is being made on the virus – "we've learned how to put out the flame" – even though new U.S. cases are on a record pace, including more than 50,000 in the past three days.
Trump, who has repeatedly said the virus would eventually "disappear," said there would be a "therapeutic and/or vaccine solution" to COVID-19 "long before" the end of the year. Jonathan Reiner, professor of medicine at George Washington University, said a vaccine is unlikely by the end of the year, "at least not one released for widespread use."
The president praised the doctors, nurses and first responders among the invited guests to the gala that featured a military band, flyovers, parachute jumps and fireworks.
Trump echoed a speech he gave Friday night at Mount Rushmore in South Dakota, where he condemned violent protesters. He again attacked people seeking to tear down statues and tributes to leaders who owned slaves or fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War, saying protesters' targets include revered figures such as George Washington.
"The patriots who built our country were not villains," he said.
Political analysts and others slammed Trump's use of Mount Rushmore, the White House and Independence Day as political props.
"This speech featured a president waving the white flag against a virus that has killed 130,000 Americans and showing that his only strategy is to further divide this nation," said Josh Schwerin of Priorities USA Action, a political action committee that supports Democratic candidates. "What a travesty on America’s birthday.”
Trump, who has struggled in polling, echoed many campaign themes during his 30-minute speech, talking up his economic policies despite the problems brought on by the pandemic. He extolled his foreign and military policies and told the supportive crowd gathered on the South Lawn that "many, many good things are going to happen."
According to a database maintained by Johns Hopkins University, there have been more than 2.8 million COVID-19 cases nationwide and more than 129,00 deaths.
Trump's planners scaled back this year's Independence Day event – there weren't armored military vehicles on display at the Lincoln Memorial, as happened last year – but the White House still hosted hundreds of people on the South Lawn for music and fireworks.
Invited guests included members of the military, law enforcement and their families. Members of Congress and administration officials also attended.
The White House took coronavirus precautions. Officials handed out masks, and chairs were spaced out at table and viewing areas to encourage social distancing.
"Please wear a face covering and practice social distancing in this area," said a sign near a drink stand – though many visitors did not wear masks and gathered in clusters.
The party presented unnecessary risks, some lawmakers said before the event.
“The President, as he has since February, continues to insist that the virus will simply disappear, and the Administration’s response continues to be guided by wishful thinking," said Rep. Don Beyer, D-Va., whose district includes suburbs of Washington.
Beyer, who accused Trump of again "using the military to stage yet another costly political photo op," said the president's approach is "not a strategy for ending a pandemic."
The COVID-19 threat hit home for Trump and his reelection team as one of its most prominent members contracted the virus. Kimberly Guilfoyle, a campaign fundraiser and the girlfriend of Donald Trump Jr., tested positive for the virus, officials announced before the South Dakota event.
Trump also marked the July Fourth holiday by signing an executive order creating what the administration called "a National Garden of American Heroes," a topic he discussed at length in his speech.
What statues Trump wants: Billy Graham, Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass among others
Washington Mayor Muriel Bowser, who canceled the traditional Fourth of July parade in the nation's capital, said her office informed the Interior Department that the White House event violated health guidelines set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“We are giving D.C. residents the same message about any of their outings for the holiday weekend," Bowser said. "Ask yourself, 'Do you need to be there?' "
The White House held its party during a subdued celebration elsewhere in the nation's capital.
Sparse groups of people ventured to the National Mall to watch the annual July Fourth fireworks show. Large swaths of land from the Lincoln Memorial to the Washington Monument and on up to Capitol Hill remained empty.
Farther up 16th Street, about a block north of the White House, small groups of protesters gathered for the latest demonstrations against police brutality and racial discrimination. The protests, which took up less than two blocks Saturday, stem from the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25.
Trump celebrated at a fraught time in his presidency. Polls show him slipping further behind Democratic challenger Joe Biden in the November election. There are renewed questions about his relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin, in light of reports the Russians may have paid bounties to Taliban fighters for killing U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
The American president is under attack for a shaky response to the COVID-19 pandemic, although he celebrated improving job numbers Thursday.
Trump took heat over the scale and expense of last year's July Fourth event, which cost taxpayers $13 million, according to the Government Accountability Office.
On the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, standing behind rain-streaked bulletproof glass, Trump used that event to give a speech paying tribute to all five branches of the military – plus the newly created Space Force
Trump made one of his most famous gaffes in his last July Fourth speech. Saluting the colonial military forces that defeated the British in the American Revolution, Trump said, "Our Army manned the air ... it rammed the ramparts, it took over the airports."
There were no airplanes or airports in the late 18th century. Trump blamed a teleprompter problem.
Some lawmakers said Trump made last year's July Fourth speech and event too much about himself, and he did the same thing this year in the era of COVID-19.
Beyer said, "It is clear he is willing to put others at risk in order to prop up his own fragile ego."
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: July 4th: Trump targets 'Marxists' in speech amid coronavirus pandemic