Defying critics, Trump salutes military in pomp-filled July 4 celebration

U.S. President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump react as they arrive for the "Salute to America" event during Fourth of July Independence Day celebrations at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., U.S., July 4, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

By Jeff Mason

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – With U.S. fighter jets flying overhead, President Donald Trump praised the military and reveled in a show of pomp and patriotism on Thursday in a celebration of Independence Day that critics accused him of turning into a political event.

A Bradley Fighting Vehicle is seen during the "Salute to America" Fourth of July Independence Day celebration at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, U.S., July 4, 2019. REUTERS/Tom Brenner

A Bradley Fighting Vehicle is seen during the “Salute to America” Fourth of July Independence Day celebration at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, U.S., July 4, 2019. REUTERS/Tom Brenner

Trump, a Republican who was inspired to stage the flashy affair after seeing a similar display 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.

Flanked by Bradley fighting vehicles, Trump otherwise steered clear of divisive political rhetoric, in a departure from the majority of his speeches. At times, an enthusiastic crowd could be heard chanting: “USA! USA! USA!”

Trump, 73, praised American military might despite having himself avoided the draft during the Vietnam War with bone spurs in his feet. With well-planned choreography, he told stories about each military branch before separate, dramatic flyovers of their respective military aircraft.

U.S. President Donald Trump, first lady Melania Trump, Vice President Mike Pence, Acting Secretary of Defense Mark Esper and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joseph Dunford attend the “Salute to America” event at the Lincoln Memorial during Fourth of July Independence Day celebrations in Washington, D.C., U.S., July 4, 2019. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

“We celebrate our history, our people, and the heroes who proudly defend our flag: the brave men and women of the United States military,” Trump said. “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.”

Not all the choreography appeared to go off as planned.

A flyover by Air Force One, which Trump had teased earlier in the day on Twitter, occurred unannounced and without fanfare. But a low and spectacular flyover by six F-18s known as the “Blue Angels” at the conclusion of Trump’s speech thrilled the crowd. Some people shouted “Four More Years!” in support of the president.

Trump paid tribute to the U.S. Border Patrol and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, two agencies that have played leading roles in carrying out his tough immigration policies.

He cited as great Americans both Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass, African-Americans who campaigned for the abolition of slavery more than 100 years ago. That praise could draw criticism as Trump’s administration in May decided to keep Tubman’s image off the $20 bill. He previously raised doubts about his knowledge of Douglass by speaking of the former slave in the present tense as ”somebody who’s done an amazing job.”

U.S. Air Force does a fly past as U.S. President Donald Trump speaks at the "Salute to America" event at the Lincoln Memorial during Fourth of July Independence Day celebrations in Washington, D.C., U.S., July 4, 2019. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

U.S. Air Force does a fly past as U.S. President Donald Trump speaks at the “Salute to America” event at the Lincoln Memorial during Fourth of July Independence Day celebrations in Washington, D.C., U.S., July 4, 2019. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

MILLIONS OF DOLLARS, WORRIES ABOUT CROWDS

Earlier in the day thousands of supporters wearing Trump’s signature “Make America Great Again” hats, along with opponents questioning the cost of the event, poured into the U.S. capital despite scorching temperatures and intermittent rain, while a diapered “Baby Trump” balloon sat next to a banner calling Trump a traitor.

Protesters burned a U.S. flag in front of the White House.

Ahead of the speech, Democrats accused the president of staging an out-of-place campaign rally, aware he has a history of veering off script with sharp partisan attacks even at events that are not meant to be overtly political.

Trump supporters and opponents carried American flags and wore red, white and blue outfits.

“I think what Trump’s doing with the tanks, all the flyovers, I think it’s great,” said Brandon Lawrence, his face painted with the colors of the American flag.

Some at the White House had worried about the crowd size, according to an administration official.

In January 2017 Trump fumed about reports that the crowd at his inauguration ceremony in front of the Capitol was smaller than it was for President Barack Obama.

Perhaps with the crowd size in mind, Trump sent out tweets urging people to attend and saying the event would be “one of the biggest celebrations in the history of our Country.” As it happened, the crowd lined both sides of the reflecting pool in front of the memorial, and Trump later called it a “great crowd.”

Opponents were not impressed.

“This is costing us millions and millions of dollars. We the taxpayers are paying for it, for Donald Trump to use our military as a prop. And that’s just not right,” said Medea Benjamin, co-founder of the women-led peace group Code Pink, before the event.

Republican political groups were given prime tickets for Trump’s speech, and the Washington Post reported that the U.S. National Park Service diverted $2.5 million in park entrance fees to help pay for the event.

Democratic presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders weighed in with criticism: “This is what authoritarians do: @realDonaldTrump is taking $2.5 million away from our National Park Service to glorify himself with a spectacle of military tanks rolling through Washington,” he wrote in a tweet.

Former Vice President Joe Biden, leading in opinion polls in the race for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, said in Iowa: “Donald Trump, I believe, is incapable of celebrating what makes America great, because I don’t think he gets it.”

Trump played down the expense.

“The cost of our great Salute to America tomorrow will be very little compared to what it is worth. We own the planes, we have the pilots, the airport is right next door (Andrews), all we need is the fuel,” he posted on Twitter on Wednesday. “We own the tanks and all. Fireworks are donated by two of the greats. Nice!” Andrews is the name of a nearby military base.

The July 4th holiday celebrates the U.S. founders’ declaring independence from Britain in 1776.

(Reporting by Jeff Mason; additional reporting by Steve Holland, Greg Savoy, Valerie Volcovici, Lawrence Hurley and Makini Brice; editing by Howard Goller)

New Mexico blast involving fireworks injures several firefighters

Smoke from an explosion is seen in Roswell, New Mexico, U.S., June 5, 2019 in this picture obtained from social media. Roswell Today/via REUTERS

(Reuters) – Several firefighters were injured on Wednesday, two seriously, in an explosion at a building in Roswell, New Mexico, where fireworks were being stored for the city’s annual July Fourth celebrations, police and city officials said.

The blast occurred shortly after noon at a building on the grounds of the Roswell International Air Center, a commercial airport on the southern outskirts of the town, said Todd Wildermuth, a spokesman for the city.

He said about a dozen firefighters were in and around the building “doing some preparation work” for the city’s upcoming July Fourth Independence Day fireworks display when the explosion occurred.

He said two firefighters suffered serious injuries and were taken to local hospitals. A number of others who sustained minor injuries were treated on the scene.

The cause of the blast was under investigation, he said. The fireworks storage building, at the far west end of the airport property, is far enough away from the airport itself that flight operations were not affected, Wildermuth said.

Roswell, a city of about 48,000 residents in southeastern New Mexico about 200 miles southeast of the state capital, Albuquerque, is perhaps best known for the reported crash of an unidentified flying object in 1947 near what was then known as the Roswell Army Air Field.

(Reporting by Brendan O’Brien in Chicago and Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Editing by David Gregorio and James Dalgleish)

Israeli air force gives Tel Aviv a scare as Syria tensions flare

FILE PHOTO: An Israeli Air Force F-15 fighter jet releases flares during an aerial demonstration at a graduation ceremony for Israeli air force pilots at the Hatzerim air base in southern Israel December 29, 2016. REUTERS/Amir Cohen/File Photo

TEL AVIV (Reuters) – Israeli police emergency lines lit up on Thursday after warplanes roared over the Tel Aviv coast, dropping anti-missile flares and performing aerobatics at a time of tension along the border with Syria.

It was just a rehearsal – practice flights are held every year – for the Israeli Air Force’s annual Independence Day national flypast on April 19, but no prior announcement was made.

“Many calls were received from worried citizens about noise from a squadron of planes in the Tel Aviv area,” police said in statement. “We would like to make clear they were training for the Independence Day aerial display. There’s no emergency.”

Under clear skies over Tel Aviv’s Mediterranean beach, two F-15 jets maneuvered through a series of sharp turns, climbs and dives in what appeared to be a mock dogfight as the sound of their engines crackled through the streets.

On Wednesday, U.S. President Donald Trump warned Russia of imminent military action in Syria over a suspected poison gas attack, and Israel held top-level security consultations over concerns it might be a target for Syrian or Iranian retaliation.

Trump said on Thursday that a possible strike against Syria “could be very soon or not so soon at all”.

Despite the tensions, the commander of Israel’s armed forces, Lieutenant-General Gadi Eizenkot, flew to Poland on Thursday morning to take part in Holocaust Remembrance Day events.

The Israeli military tweeted a video of him boarding a plane but did not immediately say when he was scheduled to return. A source in the delegation told Reuters, however, that Eizenkot would be back by nightfall.

In Israel, sirens blared for two minutes during the morning to mark the remembrance day, bringing traffic to a standstill as motorists and pedestrians stood to honor the six million Jews killed in the Nazi Holocaust.

Civil defence authorities issued the customary notice beforehand that in the event of a real emergency, the sirens would sound in a rising and falling, rather than a constant, tone.

(Writing by Jeffrey Heller; editing by David Stamp)