By Jeff Mason, Katanga Johnson and Julia Harte
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump on Saturday vowed to defeat the “radical left,” in an Independence Day speech at the White House that condemned recent protests against monuments to historical figures as attempts to destroy the United States.
Trump claimed without evidence that 99% of coronavirus cases in the United States were “totally harmless.” In fact, many states marked a record number of new COVID-19 cases. In Texas alone, 7,890 patients were hospitalized after 238 new admissions over the past 24 hours.
Trump, who has faced criticism over his handling of the pandemic, said China must be “held accountable” for failing to contain the disease.
The administration held a fireworks display over the National Mall as night fell after Trump’s speech, despite Washington Mayor Muriel Bowser’s warnings that the mass spectator event would defy health officials’ guidance during the pandemic.
Just steps from where Trump spoke, peaceful protesters marched down blocked-off streets around the White House, Black Lives Matter Plaza and the Lincoln Memorial. They were confronted by counter-protesters chanting, “USA! USA!” but there were no reports of violence.
Millions of Americans have been demonstrating against police brutality and racial inequality since the May 25 killing of George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man who died after a white Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes. In addition to achieving police reforms in some cities, some protesters have removed Confederate statues and other symbols of America’s legacy of slavery.
“There have always been those who seek to lie about the past in order to gain power in the present, those that are lying about our history, those who want us to be ashamed of who we are,” Trump said on Saturday. “Their goal is demolition.”
Trump’s Fourth of July remarks doubled down on his speech the previous evening at Mount Rushmore in South Dakota where he accused “angry mobs” of trying to erase history and painted himself as a bulwark against left-wing extremism.
Just months before November’s presidential election, opinion polls in key states show Trump trailing his Democratic rival, former Vice President Joe Biden. Biden wrote a Fourth of July opinion piece that struck a contrasting note with the Republican president and accused him of finding “new ways to tarnish and dismantle our democracy” every day.
In a separate letter to donors, Biden said: “We have a chance now to give the marginalized, the demonized, the isolated, the oppressed, a full share of the American dream.”
Trump, in his speech, also said the United States would have a vaccine or therapeutic solution to the virus “long before” the end of 2020. Such a success could help the U.S. economy and Trump’s chances of re-election.
On Thursday, a top U.S. health official said he was optimistic the Trump administration’s vaccine-acceleration program “Operation Warp Speed” will generate a safe and effective vaccine for COVID-19 by year-end.
Apart from fireworks spectators in Washington, activists of different stripes also appeared willing to disregard health warnings.
Roar of the Deplorables, a bikers group, said via social media that they planned to gather to protest against what they call “the anti-Trump regime” and celebrate the nation’s birthday.
Freedom Fighters DC, a new activist group which seeks to rally ethnically diverse supporters, especially the Black population of Washington, is one of the anti-racism groups ignoring the mayor’s heed to refrain from gathering.
“Black folks are not free from the chains of oppression, so we don’t get to truly celebrate Independence Day,” said Kerrigan Williams, 22, one of the founders of the group, which will host a march and an arts demonstration on Saturday afternoon.
“We’re marching today to showcase that Black folks are still fighting for the simple liberties that the constitution is said to provide.”
Reporting by Jeff Mason, Katanga Johnson, and Julia Harte; Additional reporting by Tim Reid in Washington and Trevor Hunnicutt in New York; Editing by Mary Milliken and David Gregorio.