MOUNT RUSHMORE NATIONAL MEMORIAL, S.D. – At the foot of Mount Rushmore and on the eve of Independence Day, President Donald Trump dug deeper into America's divisions by accusing protesters who have pushed for racial justice of engaging in a “merciless campaign to wipe out our history.”
The president, in remarks Friday night at the South Dakota landmark, offered a discordant tone to an electorate battered by a pandemic and seared by the recent high-profile killings of Black people. He zeroed in on the desecration by some demonstrators of monuments and statues across the country that honor those who have benefited from slavery, including some past presidents.
Four months from Election Day, his comments amounted to a direct appeal to the political base, including many disaffected white votes, that carried him to the White House in 2016.
“This movement is openly attacking the legacies of every person on Mount Rushmore," Trump said. He lamented “cancel culture" and charged that some on the political left hope to “defame our heroes, erase our values and indoctrinate our children." He said Americans should speak proudly of their heritage and shouldn't have to apologize for its history.
“We will not be terrorized, we will not be demeaned, and we will not be intimidated by bad, evil people,” Trump added. “It will not happen.”
The speech and fireworks at Mount Rushmore came against the backdrop of a pandemic that has killed over 125,000 Americans. The president flew across the nation to gather a big crowd of supporters, most of them maskless and all of them flouting public health guidelines that recommend not gathering in large groups.
The discord was heightened as the Trump campaign confirmed during the president's speech that Kimberly Guilfoyle, a top fundraiser for the campaign and the girlfriend of Trump's eldest son Donald Trump Jr., had tested positive for the coronavirus while in South Dakota. Both Guilfoyle and Trump Jr., who serves as a top surrogate for the president, are isolating themselves and have canceled public events, according to Sergio Gor, chief of staff to the Trump campaign’s finance committee.
During the speech, the president announced he was signing an executive order to establish the National Garden of American Heroes, a vast outdoor park that will feature the statues of the “greatest Americans to ever live.”
Amid the campaign headwinds, the president has sharpened his focus on his most ardent base of supporters as concern grows inside his campaign that his poll numbers in the battleground states that will decide the 2020 election are slipping.
Trump in recent weeks has increasingly lashed out at “left-wing mobs," used a racist epithet to refer to the coronavirus and visited the nation’s southern border to spotlight progress on his 2016 campaign promise to build a U.S.-Mexico border wall.
The event, while not a campaign rally, had the feel of one as the friendly crowd greeted Trump with chants of “Four more years!” and cheered enthusiastically as he and first lady Melania Trump took the stage.
“They think the American people are weak and soft and submissive," Trump said. “But no, the American people are strong and proud, and they will not allow our country and all of its values, history and culture to be taken from them.”
Republican Gov. Kristi Noem echoed Trump’s attacks against his opponents who “are trying to wipe away the lessons of history.”
“Make no mistake: This is being done deliberately to discredit America’s founding principles by discrediting the individuals who formed them,” she said.
The small town of Keystone, which lies a couple of miles from the monument, was buzzing with people Friday hoping to catch a glimpse of the fireworks and the president. Many wore pro-Trump T-shirts and hats. Few wore masks.
“This is going to rank up in the top Fourth of Julys that I talk about,” said Mike Stewhr, who brought his family from Nebraska.
Mike Harris of Rapid City, who said he was a Republican, wore a mask and waved an anti-Trump flag. He also was sporting a handgun on each hip. He said he was worried the event would spark a COVID-19 outbreak.
“I think it's a bad example being set by our president and our governor,” Harris said.
Leaders of several Native American tribes in the region raised concerns that the event could lead to virus outbreaks among their members, who they say are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19 because of an underfunded health care system and chronic health conditions.
“The president is putting our tribal members at risk to stage a photo op at one of our most sacred sites,” said Harold Frazier, chairman of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe.
Some Native American groups used Trump's visit to protest the Mount Rushmore memorial itself, pointing out that the Black Hills were taken from the Lakota people.
More than 100 protesters, many Lakota, lined the road leading from Keystone to the monument holding signs and playing Lakota music in 95-degree heat. Some held their fists in the air as cars loaded with event attendees passed by. Others held signs that read “Protect SoDak's First People,” “You Are On Stolen Land” and “Dismantle White Supremacy."
“The president needs to open his eyes. We're people, too, and it was our land first,” said Hehakaho Waste, a spiritual elder with the Oglala Sioux tribe.
About 15 protesters were arrested after blocking a road and missing a police-imposed deadline to leave.
Several people who once oversaw fire danger at the national memorial had said setting off fireworks over the forest was a bad idea that could lead to a large wildfire. Fireworks were called off after 2009 because a mountain pine beetle infestation increased the fire risks.
Noem pushed to get the fireworks resumed soon after she was elected, and enlisted Trump's help. The president brushed aside fire concerns earlier this year, saying: “What can burn? It's stone.”
Trump has presided over a several large-crowd events — in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and at an Arizona megachurch — even as health officials warn against large gatherings and recommend face masks and social distancing. He plans a July Fourth celebration on the National Mall in Washington despite health concerns from D.C.’s mayor. Trump and Melania Trump plan to host events from the White House South Lawn and from the Ellipse.
Madhani reported from Washington. Associated Press writers Jill Colvin in Washington and Todd Richmond in Madison, Wisconsin, contributed to this report.