Donald Trump observed Memorial Day weekend on Sunday by speaking in front of the Lincoln Memorial at a rally of thousands of motorcyclists, where he praised veterans, called reporters “lowlifes,” thanked “the great Bobby Knight” for endorsing him and performed a derisive impression of a general he saw on television.
The presumptive Republican nominee took the occasion — the annual “Rolling Thunder” motorcycle rally, which raises awareness of unaccounted-for POWs and soldiers missing in action — to malign Hillary Clinton and tout his own electoral successes.
Event organizers say the rally draws hundreds of thousands of bikers annually, though police officers on hand for Trump’s address said they were unable to provide an official estimate of either the crowd gathered for the speech or the entire attendance of the weekend-long rally on behalf of veterans, which first took place in 1988 and includes a “First Amendment Demonstration Run” from the Pentagon to the National Mall.
Trump spoke at a stage set up at the end of the reflecting pool closest to the Lincoln Memorial to a relatively sedate crowd of hundreds of bikers and assorted tourists, who did not entirely fill the space between the pool and the memorial. The businessman said it was not the scene he expected to encounter.
“I thought this would be like Dr. Martin Luther King, where the people will be lined up from here all the way to the Washington Monument,” said Trump. King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial to a quarter-million supporters in August 1963.
In his Sunday remarks, the New York billionaire promised to improve veterans health care, called for rebuilding the American military, and condemned Clinton for remarks she made last year downplaying problems at the Department of Veterans Affairs. “She thinks the VA is doing good,” Trump said.
He did not speak at length about any specific veterans or recount any tales of American soldiers’ heroism — Trump himself is not a veteran, having received multiple draft deferments during the Vietnam War — though he did recount his own political successes.
“I have 73 people on my staff, and I won long ahead of schedule,” Trump said, reveling in the clinching of his party’s nomination before July’s Republican National Convention.
The businessman praised his performance in Indiana, where his first-place finish May 3 effectively sealed his nomination. “I want to thank the great Bobby Knight,” said Trump, recognizing the former Indiana basketball coach, who endorsed the businessman and campaigned with him across the state.
Trump’s holiday weekend sojourn brought him face to face with one of his favorite niche constituencies. Trump has courted the support of motorcycle enthusiasts, and his campaign has coordinated with Bikers for Trump, an outside group of supporters, to give bikers tickets to Republican debates and VIP seats at campaign rallies, according to that group’s founder, Chris Cox.
“No matter where I go, there’s bikers,” Trump said.
The billionaire praised the volunteer security assistance that Bikers for Trump has provided at some of his campaign rallies, saying his staff explained to him, “They’re here to protect you, Mr. Trump.”
Trump remarked, “It’s an amazing thing.”
Nancy Regg, a spokeswoman for Rolling Thunder, which invited Trump to speak at the rally, said the group and a majority of its members support the billionaire.
“Mr. Trump was thrilled to be invited and attend this amazing event with people who have always been supportive of him,” said Trump’s spokeswoman, Hope Hicks, in an email. “This was an opportunity to reciprocate that support.”
While Trump’s love affair with bikers made the event a match, his history with POWs has been rockier. In July, Trump said that John McCain, who was held captive by the Viet Cong for 5½ years during the Vietnam War, was not a hero. “I like people who weren’t captured,” said Trump at the time, a remark he has walked back but not apologized for.
One introductory speaker said Trump “got all twisted up” in making the remark and was unfairly attacked for it. (Speakers following Trump included Hollywood actor Robert Patrick, who ended his remarks with “God bless America, and f--- ISIS.”)
Lesia Butler, a 53-year-old retiree from Tennessee in a red bandana and “Harley Davidson” earrings, toted a newly purchased Bikers for Trump shirt and said the McCain comment did not bother her. “Sometimes we say things that we regret. I’ve done it. Sometimes we say things that’s not so smart,” she said.
Butler also approved of Trump’s invocation of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech during his remarks. “I like his confidence,” she said.
Others did not approve of Trump, or of the decision to inject partisanship into the 28-year-old tradition.
Deb Teall, 61, who helped organize the rally, said she had reservations about inviting Trump to speak at an event created to help missing soldiers and POWs. “We don’t want to lose that focus,” she said. “We’re not really sure what his stance is on POW/MIA and accountability.”
“I don’t think this is a political stage for anyone. So for him to come here, I don’t agree with it,” said Craig Peters, a 63-year-old member of a western Connecticut Harley Owners group, whose leather vest featured one badge with a picture of a hand with middle finger extended.
“He scares me in some respects,” said Peters, who sported an American flag bandana and said he disapproved of Trump’s loose talk. “Stand for something. Don’t just say sh--.”
Still others were unsure how to feel about it all.
“Hillary? Trump? I don’t know, bro,” said Mike McAleer, a 56-year-old union laborer from “Strong Island,” sporting a leather vest and black POW/MIA skull cap.