SOUTH DAKOTA (REUTERS, AFP) - President Donald Trump on Friday (July 3) railed against "angry mobs" that tried to tear down statues of Confederate leaders and other historical figures, warning thousands of supporters at Mount Rushmore that protesters were trying to erase United States history.
Speaking underneath a famed landmark that depicts four US presidents, Mr Trump warned that the demonstrations over racial inequality in American society threatened the foundations of the US political system.
"Make no mistake, this left wing cultural revolution is designed to overthrow the American revolution," Mr Trump said.
"Our children are taught in school to hate their own country," he added.
The event drew an estimated 7,500 people, packed tightly into an amphitheatre beneath the famed landmark that depicts the images of US presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln.
Mr Trump promised Mount Rushmore would never be defaced, and that he would never abolish the police or the right to bear arms.
“They want to silence us – but we will not be silenced,” he said to cheers, adding later that it was time to “speak up loudly, strongly, powerfully and defend the integrity of our country.”
“The best is yet to come,” he said, promising to establish “a vast outdoor park that will feature the statues of the greatest Americans who ever lived”.
Mr Trump has held three public events that have drawn thousands of supporters over the past three weeks, despite warnings from public-health officials who have urged Americans to avoid large gatherings as the Covid-19 pandemic continues to ravage the country.
Seven states posted a record number of new Covid-19 cases on Friday.
The virus has even reached Mr Trump's inner circle.
Ms Kimberly Guilfoyle, a senior campaign official and the girlfriend of the President's son, Mr Donald Trump Jr, tested positive in South Dakota before attending the Mount Rushmore event, according to a source familiar with the situation.
At Mount Rushmore, masks were offered to attendees but many did not wear them.
Mr Trump did briefly thank those “working tirelessly to kill the virus” during his comments Friday.
But otherwise he has had little to say about the shocking increase in US virus cases.
The surge, especially in the south and west of the country, has cast a pall over Independence Day and seen US residents blacklisted by Britain and Europe, who have opened their borders to others.
Vice President Mike Pence postponed a trip to Arizona this week after members of his Secret Service detail reportedly showed signs of Covid-19, and he and other Republican leaders have belatedly begun emphasising the importance of wearing masks.
Former President Barack Obama weighed in Friday, tweeting: “This holiday weekend, let’s be safe and smart. It’s going to take all of us to beat this virus. So wear a mask. Wash your hands. And listen to the experts, not the folks trying to divide us.”
RECIPE FOR DISASTER
South Dakota, a solidly Republican state, has not been hit as hard as other states by Covid-19, but cases in Pennington County, where Mount Rushmore is located, have more than doubled over the past month.
Ms Cheryl Schreier, superintendent of the Mount Rushmore National Memorial from 2010 to 2019, admonished Mr Trump for defying social distancing guidelines for an event she warned carried risks of spreading disease, triggering wildfires and contaminating groundwater.
"This is a recipe for disaster," she wrote in a column published in the Washington Post.
Native American protesters were arrested after blocking a road to the South Dakota landmark, according to video livestreamed on social media.
They criticised Mr Trump's visit for increasing the risk of spreading the Covid-19 virus and for celebrating US independence in an area that is sacred to them.
Mr Trump also advocated for a resumption of fireworks display, which has discontinued since 2009 because of environmental concerns.
The state says the surrounding Black Hills National Forest has "gained strength" since then and that fireworks technology has advanced.
But Mr Randy Seiler, who heads the state Democratic party, told CNN the planned festivities are problematic: that they are offensive to Native Americans who consider the land sacred, that the fireworks pose a fire risk in the extremely dry area, and that the virus danger is real.
Mr Trump has long expressed his fascination with the imposing Mount Rushmore sculpture.
In 2017, he joked about someday seeing his own face joining the Rushmore likenesses of his four predecessors – though the National Park Service says “the work is complete in its present form.”
Mr Trump will hold another celebration for the July 4 holiday on Saturday in Washington.