WASHINGTON — President Trump’s multi-million-dollar, militarized “Salute to America” drove the political left — and members of his own administration — mad.
But on a humid, 90-degree day in D.C., throngs of the president’s supporters turned the National Mall into the GOP’s backyard, camping out in front of the Lincoln Memorial with lawn chairs, coolers and campaign posters, red MAGA hats peppering the green fields.
In the oppressive heat, attendees strung “TRUMP 2020” banners along metal gates and broke into sporadic chants of “build that wall.” Hundreds of people arrived six to eight hours before the president was scheduled to speak, some driving from places as far as Kansas City, Missouri, and Jacksonville, Florida.
“I feel like people talking about it being a political spectacle is what has made it a political spectacle,” Will Bowman, a 36-year-old welder from Richmond, Virginia, told VICE News. “Nobody here has been ranting and raving on lunatic politics. That’s not something I’d take part in anyway. I feel like the media has unfairly portrayed this as a political spectacle to make [Trump] look bad.”
Bowman, wearing a baseball cap embroidered with “TRUMP 2020” and carrying a flag with the president’s face printed across it, brought his children to the event to show them “how great we can be when we all come together and put our differences aside.”
Kim and John Metzger, a couple from Kentucky who go to Trump rallies “all the time,” were selling Trump-themed baseball caps for $20. It was their first year in D.C. for the Fourth of July, they said, and they came just “to support Trump. Just being patriotic, love for the country,” Kim told VICE News.
Her husband, John, said he likes what Trump stands for. “It’s rule of law,” he said. “People see it as racism, I see it as rule of law. If you play by the rules, you get rewarded.”
“People see it as racism, I see it as rule of law.”
Behind the scenes, federal employees have labored for weeks to pull the event off. One uniformed National Park Service worker told VICE News that department has sent employees to the event site at 5 a.m. for at least two weeks preparing for the event. (The Park Service will pay at least $2.5 million for it.) The employee was in the middle of working a 15-hour day.
Along the Lincoln Memorial’s Reflecting Pool, National Guard troops patrolled the mall in groups of three and four. Uniformed Transportation Security Administration employees checked attendees’ bags.
But the president would not arrive for several more hours. Black clouds threatened to bring thunderstorms to the event area. And visitors had no access to the tanks and armored vehicles Trump promised at the rally, visible only to the Republican donors and allies with access to the VIP seating area adjacent to the monument.
That disappointed Anthony Miller, a Trump supporter from Kansas City, Missouri, who said that he “was looking for the tanks, they were supposed to have tanks.”
”I’ve been looking all up and down the parade and asking everybody where they’re at, and I haven’t seen no tanks yet,” Miller said. “Well, imagine that. We’re paying for ‘em but we can’t see ‘em.”
Though several thousand attendees strong, the crowd appeared thin by late afternoon, with only the access areas directly in front of the Lincoln Memorial and jumbotrons full. A typical Fourth of July would fill the National Mall from the Lincoln Memorial to the U.S. Capitol.
It was bare enough, in fact, that groups of families were playing soccer on adjacent fields. And on a small sound stage along Constitution Avenue, a singer-songwriter playing guitar commented on the size of the audience. “Thanks to the two of you who clapped,” she ribbed the crowd.
Families took leisurely strolls along the pathways parallel to the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool; dozens of others sat inside the fountain of the World War II Memorial, too distracted by the heat to pay attention to the music that began to play from the main event area.
Most others lounged under umbrellas printed with the American flag, laying on blankets in the grass.
Twenty-one-year-old Devin Connell told VICE News that he’s tired of hearing the president criticized from members of the political media. He drove from Jacksonville, Florida with two friends because he wanted to show the country that the president has support, and to “prove the media wrong” about the event.
“I think [the media] kind of like to make it seem like nobody supports him and nobody likes what he has to say,” Connell said. “I think that gets lost a lot, that the love for the country is there. And that includes supporting the president.”
“Dishonest news media”
Of the dozen families and groups of friends who spoke to VICE News, nearly all emphasized that they’re here for a showing of national unity. Several people, some of whom referred to this reporter as the “dishonest news media,” declined to speak with or give their last names to VICE News.
Trayvon, who brought his son to the National Mall to see Trump speak and watch fireworks, said that he’ll support any American president. As a veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps who served for eight years, he said he was excited to see an emphasis on the military during the Fourth of July.
“I think that it’s great to see everybody being patriotic, coming together, and voicing their opinions, whether I agree with them or not,” he said. “I think it’s great that you can come out here and do that, because there are a lot of places in the world where you can’t.”
Nora, a Department of Justice employee who did not want to share her last name due to her government job, brought her daughter and husband to the Lincoln Memorial to hear Trump’s speech. They camped out at 10:30 a.m., and plan to stay on the National Mall until the conclusion of the president’s speech, which is scheduled to end by 7:30 p.m.
Nora, too, told VICE News that she and her husband like to keep an open mind when it comes to politics.
“As an immigrant, I have found here everything. This is our country now,” she said. “Every single president has something to say and something to give. We are not a family that is Democrat or Republican, we are in the middle. We are the kind of immigrants that do things legally, that’s what we like from [Trump].”
Her husband and young daughter, both decked out in red, white, and blue clothing, lounged on a towel behind her.
“I told my son, this is a night you’re never going to forget,” Bowman said. “They don’t have to see it on TV. He can say, ‘I was there.’”
Cover: People gather on the National Mall ahead of President Trump's speech during Fourth of July festivities on July 4, 2019 in Washington, DC. President Trump is holding a "Salute to America" celebration on the National Mall on Independence Day this year with musical performances, a military flyover, and fireworks. (Photo by Stephanie Keith/Getty Images)