President Donald Trump gave a Memorial Day address Monday at Baltimore’s Fort McHenry honoring recent and past fallen military members and likening their contributions to service members currently on the front lines battling the coronavirus.
“As our brave warriors have shown us from our nation’s earliest days, in America, we are the captains of our own fate,” said the president, joined by first lady Melania Trump, on a day when most of the city remained at home to guard against the spread of COVID-19 and the national death toll from the virus neared 100,000.
Dozens of Trump supporters gathered outside Fort McHenry’s blocked-off entrance Monday morning. Few wore masks.
Trump spoke of the virus as an “invisible enemy.”
“We mourn alongside every single family that has lost a loved one,” Trump said.
“Tens of thousands of service members and national guardsmen are on the front lines of our war against this terrible virus, caring for patients, delivering critical supplies and working night and day to save our citizens,” he said.
Trump mostly stuck to his prepared text rather than improvise. The president has been encouraging states to reopen even as medical experts caution against moving too quickly in rolling back restrictions meant to slow the virus’s spread.
Baltimore Mayor Bernard C. “Jack" Young, a Democrat, had urged Trump to reconsider the visit, saying it set the wrong example as the city remains under a stay-at-home order because of the coronavirus. City Council President Brandon Scott, a Democrat who is running for mayor, also asked the president to stay home.
Trump recited the history of Fort McHenry, where 1,000 U.S. soldiers withstood a British bombardment in 1814, inspiring Francis Scott Key to write the poem that became “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
Trump drew a parallel between the Fort McHenry combat and service members risking their safety in the battle against COVID-19.
“As one nation, we mourn alongside every single family that has lost loved ones, including the families of our great veterans. Together we will vanquish the virus," the president said.
In Maryland, Gov. Larry Hogan activated the state’s guard in March. Guard members have been deployed for a range of assignments, including setting up a field hospital within the Baltimore Convention Center and distributing face shields and other protective equipment to front-line health care workers across the state from a Strategic National Stockpile site near Baltimore.
They also have been deployed to food distribution sites within the city and tapped to help at testing sites for the virus.
Trump spoke in a section of the fort surrounded by an embankment and a stone wall. The area was decorated with red, white and blue banners, and a giant American flag stood to the right of the podium. The secretaries of defense and interior and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff were all on hand.
Hogan, a Republican, did not attend, saying he was spending the day with his family celebrating his 64th birthday.
Among the guests at Fort McHenry was U.S. Rep. Andy Harris of Baltimore County, the only Republican in the state’s congressional delegation. Harris has loudly advocated for opening Maryland businesses.
"The president of the United States comes to Maryland. Why wouldn’t I be here?” Harris said. "It’s time to begin reopening under [Centers for Disease Control] guidelines. The bottom line is we’re on federal property here. I mean, the mayor has his opinion, but in the end he should be reopening Baltimore as well.”
Harris wore a full face shield that he got from a Maryland company for which his son is a sales director.
Daniel “Charles” Harris arrived with 20 shields produced by Hardwire LLC, a Pocomoke City-based company. “I want to get this in front of the president. I want the president to know small businesses can compete with China companies,” the son said.
Before the president spoke, the elder Harris got into a dispute with a White House advance staff member, loudly yelling “bulls---!" It’s not clear exactly what precipitated the flap, but Harris was overheard by a reporter saying the staffer — who was assisting VIP guests in the seating area — had misunderstood some CDC guidelines. The congressman, who asked for the staff member’s name so he could write it down, declined to discuss the incident when approached by a media member, saying it was none of the reporter’s business.
Asked for comment about the dispute, Harris spokesman John Dutton emailed a general statement about the push to get more businesses open. “The Congressman supports the President coming to Baltimore as part of his efforts to re-open America. The congressman’s efforts over the last three weeks have all been toward that goal for the First Congressional District,” the statement said.
Most of the fewer than 200 spectators— sitting on white lawn chairs in a grassy area facing the podium — wore face masks, but the president did not.
Young, a Democrat, first asked the Republican Trump to reconsider his visit Thursday. The mayor says the city continues to ban gatherings of more than 10 people, and that city resources were already stretched thin due to the pandemic and would be further strained by assisting with a presidential visit.
The White House didn’t budge. “The brave men and women who have preserved our freedoms for generations did not stay home and the president will not either as he honors their sacrifice by visiting such a historic landmark in our nation’s history,” White House spokesman Judd Deere said.
Fort McHenry closed to the public March 28 to prevent the spread of COVID-19, which has sickened more than 47,000 Marylanders and killed more than 2,100. National Park Service properties, including the Grand Canyon, have been gradually reopening in a phased approach, but the fort remains shut down.
The security extended to officers cruising on the Patapsco River. The fort is separated from the river by stone sea walls dating to the 19th century. The security included contactless temperature screenings for guests.
Trump and the first lady attended a wreath-laying ceremony earlier in the day at Arlington National Cemetery.
Outside the fort’s gates, some demonstrators held signs demanding that Maryland “reopen” and suggesting the pandemic response is overblown.
Gina Witcher knelt on the grass to finish drawing out her message on poster board: “All jobs are essential,” it read.
She came to Monday’s event with her four sons, including one dressed like the president in a red tie and “Make America Great Again” cap. The 11-year-old had dressed similarly for a recent school dance.
Witcher, a teacher in Anne Arundel County, said while she’s kept her job, she’s saddened by the thousands who have lost theirs because of the pandemic.
“At this point people are losing livelihoods,” she said. “You should give people the choice to open businesses at this point.”
She said it didn’t feel necessary for her or her kids to don masks. Witcher says she thinks COVID-19 mostly represents a threat to the elderly and those with underlying conditions.
“The body, if it’s healthy, it’ll fight off a lot,” she said.
The CDC recommends people wear cloth masks in public because it could help people who may have the virus and not know it from transmitting it to others.
Shane Bloyer, 52, said he came from Rosedale to support Trump after the president said recently that he considers places of worship essential and wants churches to reopen.
Bloyer’s church has been holding online services since the pandemic hit Maryland, but he says it’s not the same.
“We just want to come together to pray for our nation,” he said.
The demonstration outside the fort was in the middle of many unsuspecting joggers’ regular routes. As one man ran through, he flipped off the Trump supporters and yelled out, “Go back to the county!”
Democrats outnumber Republicans 10-to-1 in Baltimore, and Trump is deeply unpopular. A train marked with obscene graffiti about Trump motored by during the gathering.
Trump made his first visit to Baltimore as president last September, addressing U.S. House Republicans holding a retreat in the city. His motorcade was met by noisy protests along the downtown route.
Last July, the president launched a string of tweets and comments attacking Rep. Elijah Cummings — who died in October — as well as the congressman’s hometown of Baltimore and his 7th Congressional District, which the president called “rat and rodent infested.”
The overwhelming majority of people gathered outside the national monument entrance Monday were Trump supporters.
But Valeria Pappas, a lab technician, came to protest the president and the inaction she feels led to countless more COVID-19 deaths.
“Things could’ve been different for Americans,” she said.
As Trump supporters headed home from the demonstration outside Fort McHenry, many walked past two health care workers dressed in their blue scrubs.
They held up a sign reading: “My life is not your publicity stunt. 100,000 dead on your watch.”