On a sweltering, storm-tossed day, crowds were pulled in opposite directions on a polarized Mall, with “Make America Great Again” caps bedecking the throngs near the Lincoln Memorial and Baby Trump balloons bobbing in protest amid the masses gathered near the U.S. Capitol. Each side even had its own fireworks show largely invisible to the other, along with plenty of rhetorical firecrackers being tossed where the two sides mixed.
Near the World War II Memorial, midway along the Mall, a man with a sign reading “Facts matter” handed out free pocket Constitutions, and another held a sign with the words “No tanks on our streets. Not on our day.”
They were interrupted by a man who stormed up to the group, cursing and calling a massive inflated Baby Trump nearby “anti-American.” He threatened to destroy it, shouting, “Go, Trump!”
But the ties that unify the union were also on display. A 75-year-old volunteer with the Code Pink activist group managed to appease the man, who said he was an Army veteran who didn’t want the president disrespected.
“I understand,” said the volunteer, Paki Wieland, who wore a pink shirt, a white scarf around her neck and earrings with doves and peace signs. “Everything has polarized in this country.”
By the end, the man shook Wieland’s hand and thanked her for listening but also threatened to return with a bullhorn.
The holiday began as it typically does, with thousands streaming out of Metro stations and lining Constitution Avenue to watch a parade of fife and drum bands, Boy Scout troops and Miss District of Columbia. Amid heat warnings from the U.S. Park Police, the crowds migrated with their sunblock and water bottles and miniature flags to the Mall. The “Capitol Fourth” fireworks show and National Symphony Orchestra concert is a summer ritual for many who live within driving distance and a yearly broadcast on PBS.
But those who had heard about Trump’s speech began anticipating something different.
“This is going to electrify the whole day,” said Paco Sanchez, 45, an Illinois resident attending the celebration with his wife, Nancy Sanchez.
Trump’s event, called “A Salute to America,” was modeled on a Bastille Day celebration with military trappings that captured the president’s imagination in 2017. Air Force One flew over the Mall as Trump approached the podium, protected by rain-streaked bulletproof glass.
The Sanchezes, both “gung-ho” Trump supporters retired from the U.S. Air Force, said it was their first time in the nation’s capital for the Fourth. Nancy Sanchez compared Trump’s appearance to the 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech by Martin Luther King Jr. from the same marble steps.
“When Martin Luther King Jr. had his speech, people look back on that and say, ‘I was there for it,’ ” Nancy Sanchez said. “We want to witness this part of history being built.”
Others faulted the president for injecting himself into a day that is usually immune from controversy and politics.
“He’s kidnapped our holiday, and it’s not right,” said Deb McKern, who lives on Capitol Hill and had looked forward to Independence Day in Washington after more than a decade working abroad for the Library of Congress. McKern considered skipping the festivities when she learned of Trump’s involvement but ultimately decided to show up and protest.
The military might was gathered mostly near the Lincoln Memorial, with two Bradley Fighting Vehicles parked inside the chain-link VIP enclosure accessible only to those who had acquired VIP tickets from the White House and the Republican Party. But green and camouflage-covered trucks blocked key intersections, part of a D.C. National Guard deployment of 800 members that was roughly triple the number of those in years past. Guard spokesman Lt. Col. Michael R. Odle said the extended nature of the event and additional activities prompted the increase.
Scattered protests took place throughout the day. A flag-burning in front of the White House led to two arrests and a brief skirmish with onlookers, according to the Secret Service. The “Baby Trump” balloon — featuring a scowling caricature of the president in a diaper — was visible much of the day until it was taken down late in the afternoon because of high winds.
Rain and lightning swept over the Mall more than once, causing many to take cover just before 4 p.m. Officials ordered an area near the Capitol temporarily evacuated about 90 minutes later. But the weather cleared enough for a series of flyovers by aircraft from each branch of the military, from Coast Guard helicopters to the Air Force’s B-2 stealth bomber and F-22 Raptors.
At the Lincoln Memorial, families wearing ponchos and MAGA hats chanted “USA! USA!” as the marble image of the nation’s 16th president loomed over the scene. They cheered the air show over the monuments, and the current president narrated each sortie with snippets of military history.
“Today, just as it did 243 years ago, the future of American freedom rests on the shoulders of men and women willing to defend it,” Trump said in introducing the roll call of airborne hardware.
Even as the Navy Blue Angels took their turn in the sky, a group of protesters was using a particular naval aviator to antagonize Trump. A left-leaning political action committee distributed T-shirts depicting the USS McCain, the Navy ship named in honor of the late senator John McCain (R-Ariz.), a bitter rival of the president’s. The ship is also named in honor of McCain’s father and grandfather.
“John McCain really gets under Trump’s skin because he killed Trump getting rid of health care,” said Gayelynn Taxey, one of the shirt distributors near the White House, referring to the late senator’s vote defeating Republican legislation to gut the Affordable Care Act.
But for Elaine and Wayne Hill of Auburn, Wash., the protesters’ criticisms ring hollow.
“People are complaining it’s going to be all military and stuff, and that it’s going to be a show of his power, but the tanks are just parked there for us to see,” said Elaine Hill, 57, who along with her husband was wearing a red MAGA hat. “It’s not a show of his power; it’s a show of American power.”
“Right, exactly,” chimed in Sherri Fries, who was sitting on the same curb as the Hills before the parade. “People just jump to conclusions. It’s a shame.”
Despite the debate over Trump’s use of military hardware — a practice critics say is reminiscent of public celebrations by authoritarian regimes — the vehicles imported as props by the armed forces were keeping a low profile as crowds gathered.
The two Bradley armored vehicles were behind fences. The tanks could scarcely be seen.
“I wish I could get in there,” Ali Safaei sighed, poking his nose through the barrier.
Safaei, 30, said he has mixed feelings about Trump — particularly the president’s hard-line policies toward his home country, Iran — but he was disappointed that the tanks were not on display.
At day’s end, there was even a twist on the venerable fireworks show that has boomed over the Mall for decades. The president’s event included an added display launched from behind the Lincoln Memorial, so close that bits of exploded paper rained on the VIP enclosure. But smoke, clouds and distance made the burst nearly invisible to those farther away.
“It’s definitely a bummer,” said Jeff Rossin, 24, visiting from Santa Barbara, Calif. “This looks like a War of 1812 reenactment, when they couldn’t see anything.”
The original show, which was moved to a new launching point in West Potomac Park, was similarly obscured for some, leaving many grumbling that the new arrangements had lessened the view.
Shandra Edwards, 47, who comes every year from Maryland and declared this year’s display “awful.” She hadn’t known the view would be best from the Lincoln Memorial, which was too small to fit the whole crowd in any case.
“That’s a problem; that’s not normal,” she said of the VIP-tailored show. “We’re all taxpayers . . . I’m fired up.”
Shana Gould, 53, and Taylor Branch, her 18-year-old daughter, were moving to find a good fireworks viewing spot, as the Fairfax County residents do every year. But crossing 17th Street, they found themselves caught in a tussle between Code Pink protesters and a Trump-supporting couple. Branch reached over and shoved the couple back, yelling repeatedly, “Don’t touch my mother!” The man involved then spit on Branch’s face twice and nearly pushed her to the ground before Park Police intervened.
“The atmosphere is so different this year,” Gould said. “There’s just so much hatred.”
Despite isolated clashes, public safety and transportation officials said the day went smoothly.
D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services treated several people for heat-related ailments, but nobody suffered serious injuries, according to spokesman Vito Maggiolo. He said most of those treated had been at the parade on Constitution Avenue NW.
A spokeswoman for the Metro transit agency said the system was operating on schedule, with no problems reported.
Rachel Weiner, Rebecca Tan, Laurel Demkovich, Cortlynn Stark, Joe Heim, Fenit Nirappil, Luz Lazo, Paul Schwartzman, Peter Hermann and Teddy Amenabar contributed to this report.