By Jeff Mason
MOUNT RUSHMORE NATIONAL MEMORIAL, S.D. (Reuters) - President Donald Trump on Friday accused "angry mobs" of trying to erase history with efforts to remove or rethink monuments to U.S. historical figures and used a speech at Mount Rushmore to paint himself as a bulwark against left-wing extremism.
On a day when seven U.S. states posted a record number of new COVID-19 cases, the pandemic moved further into Trump's inner circle. Kimberly Guilfoyle, a senior campaign official and the girlfriend of Donald Trump Jr., tested positive in South Dakota before the event, according to Sergio Gor, a Trump campaign official. Trump Jr. tested negative, Gor said.
The pre-July 4 holiday event drew 7,500 people, packed into an outdoor amphitheater. Many did not wear masks, defying the advice of health officials who have urged Americans to avoid large gatherings to slow the spread of COVID-19.
Trump has not worn a mask in public and made only limited reference to the pandemic in his remarks.
Speaking underneath the famed landmark depicting four U.S. presidents, Trump warned that the demonstrations over racial inequality threatened the foundations of the U.S. political system.
"Make no mistake, this left wing cultural revolution is designed to overthrow the American revolution," Trump said. "Our children are taught in school to hate their own country."
In the nationwide unrest following the death of George Floyd, a Black man who died in police custody in Minneapolis, protesters in several cities have vandalized the statues of leaders, including Confederate generals who led a rebellion against the U.S. government during the 1861-65 U.S. civil war.
Protesters in one instance unsuccessfully tried to pull down a statue of U.S. President Andrew Jackson outside the White House. Jackson, known for his populist policies, owned slaves and forced thousands of Native Americans from their homes.
"Angry mobs are trying to tear down statues of our founders, deface our most sacred memorials, and unleash a wave of violent crime in our cities," Trump said.
Trump, a Republican who has emphasized a "law and order" approach to the demonstrations, has opposed proposals to rename U.S. military bases that are named after Confederate generals.
The program was not an official campaign event, but Trump touched on key themes meant to energize his base ahead of the Nov. 3 election. Many in the crowd wore Trump memorabilia and chanted "Four More Years" before the program began.
Trump trails presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden in opinion polls in key states and is eager to boost his campaign through a tough response to social unrest.
"There is a new far-left fascism that demands absolute allegiance. If you do not speak its language, perform its rituals, recite its mantras, and follow its commandments then you will be censored, banished, blacklisted, persecuted, and punished. Not gonna happen to us," Trump said.
Mount Rushmore, which depicts U.S. presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln, has not hosted a fireworks spectacle since 2009 because of environmental concerns.
Trump advocated a resumption of the display, and the state says the surrounding Black Hills National Forest has "gained strength" since then and that fireworks technology has advanced.
Native American protesters were arrested after blocking a road to the South Dakota landmark, according to video on social media. They have criticized Trump's visit for increasing the risk of spreading COVID-19 and for celebrating U.S. independence in an area that is sacred to them.
South Dakota, solidly Republican, has not been infected as badly as other states, but cases in Pennington County, where Mount Rushmore is, have more than doubled in the past month.
White House chief of staff Mark Meadows told reporters Trump did not need to focus on the pandemic during a ceremony meant to highlight Independence Day.
Trump praised each of the leaders depicted on Mount Rushmore. Washington and Jefferson, revered for being U.S. founding fathers, were slave owners.
The president will hold another celebration for the July 4 holiday on Saturday in Washington.
(Reporting by Jeff Mason; additional reporting by Steve Holland, Diane Bartz and Andy Sullivan; writing by Andy Sullivan and Jeff Mason; editing by Dan Grebler, Chris Reese, Christian Schmollinger, William Maclean)