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Trump holds Fourth of July event in Washington despite pleas to curb gatherings

World·Updated

On a day meant for unity and celebration, U.S. President Donald Trump vowed to "safeguard our values" from enemies within — leftists, looters, agitators, he said — in a Fourth of July speech packed with all the grievances and combativeness of his political rallies.

U.S. president's speech packed with classic grievances, combativeness of his rallies

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks at an event on the South Lawn of the White House on Saturday.(Patrick Semansky/The Associated Press)

On a day meant for unity and celebration, U.S. President Donald Trump vowed to "safeguard our values" from enemies within — leftists, looters, agitators, he said — in a Fourth of July speech packed with all the grievances and combativeness of his political rallies.

Trump watched paratroopers float to the ground in a tribute to America, greeted his audience of front-line medical workers and others central in responding to the coronavirus pandemic, and opened up on those who "slander" him and disrespect the country's past.

"We are now in the process of defeating the radical left, the anarchists, the agitators, the looters, and the people who, in many instances, have absolutely no clue what they are doing," he said. "We will never allow an angry mob to tear down our statues, erase our history, indoctrinate our children.

"And we will protect and preserve American way of life, which began in 1492 when Columbus discovered America."

He did not mention the dead from the pandemic. Nearly 130,000 are known to have died from COVID-19 in the U.S.

Trump and his wife, Melania Trump, watch a U.S. military aircraft flyover on Saturday.(Carlos Barria/Reuters)

Even as officials across the country pleaded with Americans to curb their enthusiasm for large Fourth of July crowds, Trump enticed the masses with a "special evening" of tribute and fireworks staged with new U.S. coronavirus infections on the rise.

But the crowds wandering the National Mall for the night's air show and fireworks were strikingly thinner those the gathering for last year's jammed celebration on the Mall.

Many who showed up wore masks, unlike those seated close together for Trump's South Lawn event, and distancing was easy to do for those scattered across the sprawling space.

Trump did not hesitate to use the country's birthday as an occasion to assail segments of the population that do not support him. Carrying on a theme he pounded on a day earlier against the backdrop of the Mount Rushmore monuments, he went after those who have torn down statues or think some of them, particularly those of Confederate figures, should be removed. Support has been growing among Republicans to remove Confederate memorials.

"Our past is not a burden to be cast away," Trump said.

Pandemic surging across U.S.

Outside the event but as close to it as they could get, Pat Lee of Upper Dublin, Pa., or the two friends she came with, one a nurse from Fredericksburg, Va., whose only head gear was a MAGA hat.

"POTUS said it would go away," Lee said of the pandemic, using an acronym for president of the United States. "Masks, I think, are like a hoax." But she said she wore one inside the Trump International Hotel, where she stayed.

By the Second World War Memorial, the National Park Service handed out packets of five white cloth masks to all who wanted them. People were not required to wear them.

People are seen on the National Mall as Trump speaks during an event on the South Lawn of the White House on Saturday.(Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images)

Another nurse, Zippy Watt from Riverside, Calif., came to see the air show and fireworks with her husband and their two daughters, one of whom lived in Washington. They wore matching American flag face masks even when seated together on a park bench.

"We chose to wear a mask to protect ourselves and others," Watt said. She said her family was divided on Trump but she is "more of a Trump supporter. Being from southern Cali I see socialist tendencies. I'm tired of paying taxes so others can stay home."

Trump's guests were doctors, nurses, law enforcement officers and military members as well as officials from the administration, said Judd Deere, deputy White House press secretary. He said the event was a tribute to the "tremendous courage and spirit" of front-line workers and the public in the pandemic.

Guests are seen on the South Lawn of the White House on Saturday.(Patrick Semansky/The Associated Press)

In many parts of the country, authorities discouraged mass gatherings for the holiday after days that have seen COVID-19 cases grow at a rate not experienced even during the deadliest phase of the pandemic in the spring.

Yet Trump continued to crave big crowds when it came to his events.

He opened the holiday weekend by travelling to Mount Rushmore in South Dakota for a fireworks display Friday night near the mountain carvings of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt. In stark words, he accused protesters who have pushed for racial justice of engaging in a "merciless campaign to wipe out our history."

Even as he pushed ahead with celebrations, the shadow of the coronavirus loomed closer to him. Kimberly Guilfoyle, a top fundraiser for the president and girlfriend of his eldest child, Donald Trump Jr., tested positive for the virus, Trump's campaign said late Friday. Guilfoyle tweeted Saturday that she was looking forward to "a speedy recovery."

In a presidential message earlier Saturday on the 244th anniversary of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence, Trump acknowledged that "over the past months, the American spirit has undoubtedly been tested by many challenges."

His Democratic rival, Joe Biden, said in a statement that the U.S. "never lived up" to its founding principle that "all men are created equal," but today "we have a chance to rip the roots of systemic racism out of this country."

America was founded on the promise of equality, liberty, and justice for all — and it's long past time we lived up to it.

—@JoeBiden

Trump's endorsement of big gatherings at the National Mall and at Mount Rushmore came as many communities decided to scrap fireworks, parades and other holiday traditions in hopes of avoiding yet more surges in infection.

Confirmed cases are climbing in 40 states, and the U.S. set another record Friday with 52,300 newly reported infections, according to the tally kept by Johns Hopkins University.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cautions that mass gatherings like the one scheduled for Washington present a high risk for spread of the virus. Yet Surgeon General Jerome Adams sidestepped when asked if he would caution a loved one against attending a large gathering. He said people should wear masks and otherwise make up their own mind.

WATCH | Independence Day celebrations a concern in U.S. where cases on the rise:

As new daily cases in the U.S. hit a record, concerns abound that July 4th celebrations will lead to an explosion of COVID-19 cases as people scoff at masks and physical distancing.2:01

Trump has been aching to see the nation return to normalcy, and has been willing to push the envelope farther than many states and big city mayors are willing to go.

District of Columbia Mayor Muriel Bowser said she didn't have the right to shut down the holiday spectacle because it's on federal land. But she warned the federal government about the dangers of such a large crowd and told her constituents: "Just because someone invites you to a party doesn't mean you have to go."

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