The president’s speech, scheduled as part of a July 4 weekend celebration at the South Dakota memorial, comes after weeks of nationwide protests against racism and police brutality that have forced broader discussions over monuments to racist historical figures.
It was a divisive address that stood in stark contrast to a weekend holiday celebrating national unity across a country also riven by a deadly pandemic.
"The violent mayhem we have seen in the streets and cities that are run by liberal Democrats in every case is the predictable results of years of extreme indoctrination and bias in education, journalism and other cultural institutions," Trump said.
Although health experts have slammed Trump for holding the event amid a nationwide surge in coronavirus cases, he did not directly refer to the virus or the country's daily record-setting case toll.
Kim Guilfoyle, the girlfriend of Donald Trump Jr. and a top Trump campaign official, tested positive for coronavirus ahead of the president’s speech in South Dakota on Friday, POLITICO confirmed.
Guilfoyle, who traveled to Mount Rushmore to attend the event, was not in contact with the president and did not travel on Air Force One. The New York Times first reported Guilfoyle had tested positive.
South Dakota Gov. Kristi L. Noem said the roughly 3,700 people who attended the event did not need to wear masks or social distance. Like attendees of the president's June rallies in Tulsa, Okla., and Phoenix, Ariz., thousands crammed shoulder-to-shoulder to listen to Trump’s speech, his third campaign-style event since the beginning of the pandemic.
The event also featured fireworks and a flyover by Air Force One, Marine One and military aircraft.
Trump has come under fire for speaking at Mount Rushmore, a national landmark honoring Presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln with a history that has been scrutinized amid the nationwide protests.
Native American groups — who consider the land on which the monument was built sacred — staged protests outside, clashing at times with the National Guard.
“The president needs to open his eyes. We’re people, too, and it was our land first,” Hehakaho Waste, a spiritual elder with the Oglala Sioux tribe, told the Associated Press.
Demonstrators recently have torn down monuments to Confederate generals, colonial figures and slaveholders nationwide, prompting the president to sign an executive order calling for jail time for protesters who damage monuments. Noem pledged last week to resist any attempt to alter or remove Mount Rushmore, a call echoed by the president in his address.
Colleges have renamed schools dedicated to patrons with histories of racism, and brands like Aunt Jemima, Disney, and the Washington Redskins have announced plans to consider dropping racist logos and imagery.
But to Trump, many such protests and statements seem a challenge to his styling of himself as a "law and order" president tasked with upholding the nation's "splendid heritage."
"And yet, as we meet here tonight, there is a growing danger that threatens every blessing. Our ancestors fought so hard for, struggled, they bled, and the nation is witnessing a merciless campaign to wipe out the history, defame our heroes, erase our values and indoctrinate our children," he said.
"Against every law of society and nature, our children are taught in school to hate their own country and to believe that the men and women who built it were not heroes, but that were villains. The radical view of American history is a web of lies. All perspective is removed, every virtue is skewed, every motive is twisted, every fact is distorted, and every flaw is magnified until the history urged in the record is disfigured beyond all recognition."
Before leaving the stage, Trump announced he would sign an executive order to establish a “national garden of American heroes” featuring the building and rebuilding monuments and statues of "historically significant Americans."