Presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump said Sunday that illegal immigrants receive better care than the nation’s veterans, electrifying an overwhelmingly supportive crowd at the annual Rolling Thunder tribute to the armed forces.
Trump has mocked Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) for being captured during the Vietnam War and faced questions about his giving to veterans’ causes, but those issues did little to dampen the enthusiasm for his message at the Lincoln Memorial.
As he spoke from a stage at the edge of the Reflecting Pool, Trump hit upon many of themes that have animated his campaign: winning better trade deals, keeping out illegal immigrants and lowering taxes for businesses and the middle class.
Trump promised the crowd, which included thousands of veterans, that he would rebuild the military and improve health care for veterans, which he said has been shamefully bad in recent years.
“When you think of the great General Patton and all our generals, they are spinning in their graves when they watch we can’t beat ISIS,” Trump said, referring to the celebrated World War II commander. “We are going to knock the hell out of them.”
The line drew some of the loudest applause of the day from the members of the crowd, many of whom wore Trump stickers and shirts and waved his campaign signs. There were no signs of anti-Trump protesters or skirmishes that have marked some of his campaign appearances. Police reported no arrests at the event.
Thousands of motorcyclists rumble into the city each Memorial Day weekend to honor U.S. prisoners of war and troops missing in action, as well as to raise awareness about veterans’ issues. Trump was invited by organizers to speak at the event.
John Such, a 55-year-old Navy veteran from Ohio, said he felt that Trump realized he had made a mistake in making impolitic comments about McCain’s service. He said Trump’s message that the United States needed to project power in the world resonated with him.
He contrasted that call with Obama’s Friday appearance in Hiroshima, Japan, where the president called for a “moral revolution” on nuclear arms and greeted survivors of America’s atomic attack there in 1945. Such said that there was no reason to make the trip, because Japan had been the aggressor in that war, with its attack on Pearl Harbor.
“[Trump] stands for what I stand for: making America strong,” Such said, echoing the comments of others. “We’ve lost too much in the last eight years.”
Trump walked onto the stage wearing a black suit and his trademark red ballcap as techno music pounded in the background. He spoke for about 20 minutes, telling the crowd that the media were “liars” and “lowlifes,” that he would create more jobs and that he would stop companies from relocating abroad.
“Our country is being ripped off so badly on trade,” Trump said. “We are going to make our country rich again, strong again. It’s going to be America first.”
Trump reiterated his long-standing call to build a wall along the Mexican border. When he asked the crowd who was going to pay for it, a chorus rang out in unison: “Mexico!”
“Not even a doubt,” Trump responded.
One of the stranger moments came when Trump lamented that the crowd wasn’t larger, saying he expected it to fill the entire Mall like Martin Luther King did, referring to the civil rights leader’s 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech, delivered to one of the largest political rallies in U.S. history. Trump said many people had been caught in traffic Sunday.
While Trump enjoyed overwhelming support among the crowd, not everyone was on board. Sherry Smith, a retired Air Force colonel who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, said being president was “not a reality TV show.”
“There is nothing behind the veneer. There is no policy,” Smith said of Trump. “American voters are more intelligent than that.”
Smith said it was also dismaying that Trump had mocked McCain’s service, even though Trump had never served in the military himself.
Trump was heavily criticized last summer when he questioned McCain’s military service amid a public spat, questioning the five years he spent as a prisoner of war in Vietnam.
“He’s not a war hero,” Trump said during a campaign event last July. “He was a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured.”
Trump himself avoided the draft through four student deferments and was later medically disqualified from service.
Trump later sought to walk back his comments, stating that he never questioned whether McCain was a war hero but declining to apologize outright.
The tense relationship between the two has softened, and McCain — who is facing a competitive reelection battle for his Senate seat — has committed to supporting Trump in the general election. But he has remained vague about whether he would campaign alongside Trump. And he was steadfast that the real estate mogul should apologize for his comments.
“I think it’s important for Donald Trump to express his appreciation for veterans, not John McCain, but veterans who were incarcerated as prisoners of war. What he said about me, John McCain, that’s fine. I don’t require any repair of that,” McCain said during an interview with CNN this month. “But when he said, ‘I don't like people who were captured,’ then there’s a great body . . . of American heroes that I would like to see him retract that statement, not about me, but about the others.”
More recently, Trump also had to answer questions about why he had not fulfilled a pledge to transfer $6 million to veterans causes after a nationally televised fundraiser in January.
Trump said during his speech on Sunday that he planned to hold a news conference on Tuesday to name the charities to which he had given the proceeds from the fundraiser.
Veteran Art Bleich said he would probably support Trump — at least for now. He said Trump’s comments about McCain troubled him and he is watching how Trump conducts himself as the campaign moves forward.
“As a veteran, what he said about McCain was not right,” said Bleich, 63, who served with the Marines in Vietnam and has made the ride from his home in Alabama to Washington to attend Rolling Thunder for about 15 years.
“He has a right to his opinion, but he didn’t play the game, so he really doesn’t have a right to speak,” Bleich said, referring to Trump’s lack of military service. Bleich added later: “He needs to choose his words more carefully if he wants my continued support.”