On another night of unrest following a Wisconsin police shooting, Vice President Mike Pence pledged at Fort McHenry on Wednesday night that the Trump administration would stand with police and warned: “You won’t be safe in Joe Biden’s America.”
In a surprise, President Donald Trump arrived at the Baltimore fort to attend Pence’s renomination address at the Republican National Convention. The star-shaped fort served as the backdrop for Pence as he promoted Trump’s bid for a second term during the third night of the convention.
Two large helicopters flew onto the grounds of the fort about 9:45 p.m. Pence’s keynote speech began just after 10:30 p.m. and he spoke for about 40 minutes. Then, “Hail to the Chief” played and Trump and the first lady, Melania Trump, emerged.
Trump and Pence, along with their wives, stood together on stage while Trace Adkins sang the national anthem. They did not wear masks. As they then stepped down to speak with members in the audience, people crowded forward. The president mouthed “Thank you” to veterans in the front row.
In a historic landmark and on a day when the convention theme was “Land of Heroes,” Pence used the night’s biggest speech to stamp Biden, the Democratic presidential nominee, as dangerously unsuited for the job.
”In this election, it’s not so much whether America will be more conservative or more liberal, more Republican or more Democrat. The choice in this election is whether America remains America,” Pence said.
“Under President Trump, we will always stand with those who stand on the ‘Thin Blue Line,’ and we’re not going to defund the police — not now, not ever,” he said. “The hard truth is, you won’t be safe in Joe Biden’s America.”
Shortly before the program began, the president’s helicopter flew from Washington and landed on the grounds of the Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine. He went directly to a motorcade for a half-mile ride to the historic fort itself.
“Nobody had any idea the president would be coming in,” convention delegate Tom Kennedy, a Baltimore lawyer who attended the speech, said in an interview afterward. He said he was initially puzzled when he heard “Hail to the Chief.”
Pence spoke as Hurricane Laura spun on a dangerous path toward the Louisiana and Texas coasts, and as violence continued in Wisconsin following a police shooting and a subsequent shooting that left two people dead. It also came as the coronavirus pandemic continued to claim about 1,000 lives a day in the United States and wreaked havoc on the economy.
“Let me be clear, the violence must stop — whether in Minnesota, Portland or Kenosha,” Pence said. “We will have law and order on the streets of America.”
Pence said America is being tested but — in nod to Fort McHenry’s history — said “our flag is still there today.”
To those in the path of the hurricane, he said “our prayers with you tonight” and that the Federal Emergency Management Agency had mobilized supplies.
Pence argued that Americans should trust Trump to rebuild the economy because he is “a proven leader who created the greatest economy in the world.” The Trump administration has touted low unemployment and other economic successes before the pandemic took hold in March.
Democrats have countered that Trump inherited a growing economy. And as Pence spoke, the Biden campaign sent a news release saying Trump had “bungled our response to the coronavirus, leaving America with the worst outbreak in the world with over 175,000 people dead, five million infected, and our economy reeling.”
Before the speech, guests inside the fort chatted before taking their places in about 100 white chairs positioned roughly 3 feet apart. Audience members had their temperatures taken on the way in, but few wore masks.
The fort was bathed in red lights added for the occasion, according to a park ranger. Before the speech, large screens that flanked the stage read: “Trump Pence: Make America Great Again!”
Those arriving at the fort had their choice of red or camouflage “Make America Great Again” hats, as well as masks with the campaign slogan. A gallon bottle of hand sanitizer also graced the giveaway table.
There were scattered protests Wednesday in Baltimore related to Pence’s appearance and the Wisconsin police shooting of Jacob Blake.
A previously small and low-key crowd outside Fort McHenry swelled to about 60 people around 9 p.m. as a louder group of protesters arrived, led by one person carrying a rainbow flag and another with a sign that said, “Dump Trump.” Clutching bullhorns, the enlarged group surrounded three Trump supporters. The two sides shouted and chanted at each other for about 30 minutes before people began shoving. Police separated the protesters and supporters using tasers and detained one protester.
Later, officers escorted a Trump supporter from the scene and nabbed a man who rode his bike into a group of people.
Earlier Wednesday evening, members of the Peoples Power Assembly honked horns as they drove on nearby streets in a caravan of about 20 vehicles to protest Pence and police abuse. Clutching a sign that read “Trump/Pence, out of Baltimore,” Sharon Black, an organizer, said Baltimore has not forgotten the derogatory remarks Trump made last year about the city. Pence stands for the same values, she said, and that was part of why organizers mobilized.
The fort is 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.” Pence recognized four Medal of Honor recipients and six Purple Heart recipients in the audience Wednesday.
The attendees included local Republican officials and candidates for various offices, said Kennedy, the convention delegate. Because the pandemic forced the cancellation of plans for a traditional convention, Kennedy said a Fort McHenry invitation was a substitute — a “reward” of sorts — for party loyalists.
That was the case for Jim Wass, an alternate delegate to the convention. He dressed in 19th-century style clothing made by his wife, with a hat decorated to show support for Trump and Pence, for Wednesday’s event.
“We like to joke about a third term,” said Wass, of Prince George’s County. “But let’s just do a clean second term, and that’ll be all right with me.”
Wass gathered at a Mount Vernon hotel with members of Maryland Young Republicans, veterans and Baltimore’s Republican nominees for local office to board shuttle buses to the event.
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Republican Gov. Larry Hogan didn’t attend. His spokesperson, Mike Ricci, previously said Hogan planned to be working in Annapolis during the convention.
The Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks, a watchdog group, issued a statement that said it was “inappropriate” for national parks to be used for such campaign events.
The coalition also released a pair of photos showing damage to a brick walkway at the fort. The National Park Service said the damage was done by a forklift during setup for the speech this week. No estimate on damages is available yet.
The GOP abandoned its original plan to stage the entire convention in North Carolina following a disagreement with Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper, who wouldn’t guarantee the availability of a full-scale convention because of concerns about the coronavirus.
Trump spoke at the fort on Memorial Day, attracting larger groups of supporters and protesters outside than the turnout Wednesday. Both visits provoked concern from Democratic Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young about whether they would adhere to restrictions on large gatherings because of the pandemic. Baltimore City currently caps outdoor gatherings at 25 people to minimize the spread of the virus.
Kennedy, the delegate, said he filled out a health questionnaire before arriving at the fort. He then had his temperature taken, but was not tested for COVID-19.
Baltimore Sun reporters Emily Opilo and Talia Richman and photojournalists Kim Hairston and Jerry Jackson contributed to this article.